#10 Stephen King

I do think that my selection of Stephen King is the most aggravating to my friend Medieval Otaku. I have empathy for the belief that King is merely a shock and vomit author who sells because people like watching horrible things happen to people. However, I contend that there are three distinct Stephen Kings. Stephen King (B) is every bad thing that M. Otaku thinks. King (B) is the author of books of nihilistic violence like Cujo and creepy horror stories that, though awesome horror stories, are in no way worthy of a top ten list (Pet Sematary comes to mind).

The next King I will mention is (C). King (C) comes last chronologically (I think). King (C) is the ‘literary elephantiasis’ that King admits he suffers from, but left unchecked. King (C) also has a high probability of being at least partially ghost written. King (C) is over-enthusiastic about supporting all the ‘right’ (politically correct) ideas rather than the brutal truth. The book that comes to my mind here is Insomnia. I only managed to read about 50 pages because it was a literal cure for the advertised illness.

However, there are a number of books and even more short stories by King where the words sing. The phrase I used above is generally apt: The Brutal Truth. These books and and novellas I believe are good enough to propel King (A) into the top ten. In fact some of these books have the truth, the long term appeal, and the humanness to acquire actual classic status. For instance James Fenemore Cooper is not on my list, despite the fact that I have read almost all of his novels, and found them enjoyable and good. He is not on my list because mostly they fall into a sort of light romance category (in an older definition of romance that includes adventure). However, ‘The Green Mile’ is the kind of story that is applicable to all times. Mankind will never cease to be racist, good men will never stop fighting the racists. Evil men will be evil, and good men will be blamed. If we read ‘N’ or we find a novella of going mad. Probably one of the best I have ever read.

Finally, I want to say a few words about ‘Salam’s Lot’ which I have as my model novel for King (A). Although Salam’s Lot is probably not the best novel King (A) ever wrote (The Green Mile, Lisey’s Story, The Shining and others may contend), Salam’s Lot is the only vampire story other than Dracula (and some vampire short stories also by King(A)) worth reading. Dracula is so good because the vampire is a specifically anti-Christian, specifically horrifying to the Christian mindset because the eternal un-life of the vampire is achieved through a satanic mockery of the Eucharist. Salam’s Lot has a lot of similar characteristics to Dracula, where ordinary people do extraordinary things. In a lot of ways I find that Salam’s Lot is the heir to Dracula, showing that even in the secular world, religious desecration elicits a visceral shudder, and that to slay a monster does not require superpowers, it requires perseverance, faith, fortitude and courage. There is also a fantastic scene where the Vampire taunts one of the characters as he relies on the mere symbolism of the crucifix and his own strength and it loses its potency.

For more thoughts on Stephen King, you can go read a few posts I have over at my blog The Dusty Thanes: A Problem with Stephen King, and Stephen King.

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Crime & Punishment and Confession

Some make the common remark that they are unimpressed when they hear of youths reading difficult works, because children and adolescents cannot understand all the intricacies of the works they read.  I, as one of those youths, would always respond that understanding something is better than understanding nothing at all.  For example, it is better to understand the Pacific Ocean to the degree wading around the shore allows than simply to know that there somewhere exists an ocean named Pacific.

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And so, I gained a surface understanding of the novel Crime and Punishment around the age of 13 or 14.  I followed what the novel told me: Raskolnikov felt weak and powerless “like a spider.”  And so, he committed the crime to feel good about himself–to feel powerful like Napoleon.  But, reading the work now, I feel like this desire insinuated itself in the place of his true desire: to reveal his inner self to other people.  But, I should perhaps have understood this sooner.  Notes from the Underground is very much related to Crime and Punishment.  And what is the essential nature of that short story?  It’s a confession.

After all, what is Raskolnikov seeking as he wanders the streets of St. Petersburg?  Someone to whom to reveal himself!  And he does meet someone who confesses to him–a drunk whom Raskolnikov meets at a tavern.  The drunk confesses how he constantly disappointed his wife, his family’s situation drove his daughter into prostitution, and he himself, when given a second chance, threw it all away on drink.  He also confesses his hope that Jesus Christ will see sinners and all their wickedness (bearing “the mark of the beast” as he put it) at the apocalypse and forgive them.  This scene probably impressed itself deeply into Raskolnikov’s psyche.

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Yet, it is not until after committing the crime–even while he is still at the scene of his murder–that the desire to confess his crime comes out most strongly.  He wants to confess it to the people knocking outside the apartment door, who know that there is something amiss.  He wants to confess it to the police.  Repressing this desire causes Raskolnikov to become sick with fever, which reminds one of the line from Psalm 32: “I kept it secret and my frame wasted.”

Interestingly, he is summoned to the police station because of an IOU his landlady brought forth against him.  There, he delivers a confession of sorts about how he used to be betrothed to the landlady’s daughter until this young lady died one year ago.  At which point, his landlady became less forgiving of the tardiness of his payments.   After hearing this story, the policemen look upon Raskolnikov with embarrassment and contempt.  People don’t tell about their personal lives to strangers!  At least, not unless they are seated at a bar or suffering from extreme loneliness as Raskolnikov is.

Raskolnikov's Flat by Jeremiah Humphries

Raskolnikov again has a strong desire to confess his crime, but does so neither here nor in the telling scene in Razumihin’s apartment, where his aimless wanderings take him.  Razumihin was his best friend while he studied at university.  Even though Dostoyevsky does not explicitly write it, one feels that Raskolnikov, who remains tight lipped as Razumihin confesses what he has been up to and even gives Raskolnikov a share of the advance on a translation job if he will join him in it, went here to confess.  Especially since Raskolnikov, after leaving the house with the payment and the project, stupidly returns back to the apartment and hands both the money and project back to Razumihin.  To which Razumihin responds: “What the devil did you come here for?”  To confess is the obvious answer, but the cold disdain Raskolnikov received from the police about his more minor confession has made him even more unwilling.

Razumihin, in the translation, basically says “Confound you if you won’t tell me anything!”  And confusion certainly befalls Raskolnikov, as he no longer feels connected to his fellow men and falls into a delirious sickness.  Why?  Because no one knows him as he really is.  No one knows his sins or how weak and crazed he has become.  This delirium lasts until he is at last induced to confess his crime and lays everything bare in the trial.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Himself

But, confession is so hard!  A particular genius of the Catholic faith is revealed in the confessional, where we reveal that dark part of ourselves which we would be ashamed to have our friends or family know.  By confessing and placing our inner selves on display, both the good and the bad, we become more connected to reality and to others as they confirm what we think, tell us we think amiss, or admonish us to change, which is what Raskolnikov really wanted.

The Wind in the Willows: Perfect for Every Age

A friend of mine from seminary once expressed his fondness for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which motivated me to download an audio book narrated by Adrian Praetzellis.  Normally, I would not mention the narrator, but he possesses stunning talent as a lector.  His voice captures the essence of each character and uses a gentle and pleasant tone for the narrative parts.  I actually felt a thrill when I realized that he also narrated Mr. Midshipman Easy by Frederick Marryat in the librovox series.  Mr. Praetzellis’s voice also works wonders for the characters in Marryat’s work.

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The Wind in the Willows turned out to be a tour de force.  Grahame has an excellent touch in lending an air of fantasy to his scenes.  This evinces itself most strongly in this work when he describes the forest during winter or the brief advent of a certain god in the midst of the night.  Then again, he has a deft touch when it comes to creating unique and likable characters.  A poor author may create many characters who seem rather the same, but Mr. Rat, Mr. Mole, Mr. Badger, and Mr. Toad all have a distinct air about them.  Grahame must not have taken life too seriously and had considerable leniency to his fellows.  At least, the Chaucerian manner in which he renders even the characters’ flaws endearing suggests this.  The Badger’s ponderous gravity, Toad’s egotism, the Mole’s maudlin attitude and impetuosity, and the Rat’s obsession with weapons all serve to make the reader love them more.

The Wind in the Willows

The work describes a series of adventures endured by the animals of the river.  This world is surprisingly gentile, like the Old South.  Little adventures occur to upset the flow of life, the most extraordinary of which surround Mr. Toad.  The authorities incarcerate him for automobile theft.  Then, he escapes prison  and discovers that his house has been invaded by other creatures, whom he must oust from his property with the help of his friends.  Mostly though, the tales contained in the work are episodic.

So, I heartily recommend this work to young children and adults who wish to immerse their minds in the gentle world of the river.

 

The Influence of George MacDonald

Many people have unfortunately never heard of George MacDonald.  I myself never read his work or bothered to learn about him until the co-author of this blog and writer of Dusty Thanes suggested that I read Lilith and Phantasies in college.  Unfortunately, I did not finish and my dear friend has recently reminded me of the need to read these seminal works.  MacDonald was a huge influence on both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  This was so much the case in regard to C. S. Lewis that he once wrote: “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”  Though, there did exist differences of opinion between them.  For example, MacDonald held that people are God’s instruments rather than co-workers–a position which rather limits human freedom–and believed that all men would be saved without exception–that hell is not eternal punishment.

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There is something charming in George MacDonald’s complete trust in God as an All-merciful Father.  Of course, all believers say that God is all-merciful, but few can convey the absolute warmth of divine love like George MacDonald.  This atmosphere of child-like trust and simplicity lends an air of fantasy to even the novels he sets in modern times. 

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At the same time, he does not underestimate the horrendous and insidious nature of sin.  I just completed the novel Weighted and Wanting, which concerns a prodigal son and how his father has difficulty forgiving him.  In the most terrible scene of the novel, the father takes a whip to Cornelius, the prodigal,  and then to Cornelius’s wife who places her body between her husband and the whip.  However, God can bring good even out of a tragedy, and this event leads the father and the son to forgive one another.  MacDonald believed that even sin, by its very ugliness, can cause the soul to turn back to God.

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I encourage everyone to read Lilith and Phantasies at least.  (Advice which I hope to follow myself soon.)  Then, Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie sound like the books which are next to the former in greatness.  Reading such works will certain help one understand the Inklings.  In That Hideous Strength, I caught one allusion to MacDonald in a character’s claim that we cannot be God’s co-workers but only His instruments and a direct reference to The Princess and Curdie so far.  Who knows?  You may come out of reading one of his books the way G. K. Chesterton did after he read Curdie.  He said MacDonald’s novel “made a difference to my whole existence.”

C. S. Lewis and Getting into a Woman’s Head

As I was reading That Hideous Strength, I was reminded of an anecdote Professor Michael Bauman of Hillsdale College told us about a certain female student who claimed that it was necessary to be a woman to depict a realistic female character.  After Professor Bauman, a man of great intellect and kindness but pugnacious in argument, discovered that his arguments claiming that understanding women as human beings sufficed to allow a male author to depict a female character adeptly were falling on deaf ears, he brought in a book for her to read sans cover, title page, and any other identifying information.  When she had finished, she told Professor Bauman: “At last, we have an author who can truly express the female voice/person!”  (The exact wording escapes me.)  To this, Professor Bauman responded that the book she had read was Till We Have Faces, which incidentally happens to be C. S. Lewis’ favorite of all the works he wrote.

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However, I think that neither the student nor the esteemed professor were completely correct.  C. S. Lewis has a rare talent for writing female characters.  I am reminded of this in That Hideous Strength as he flawlessly describes the character and motivations of Mark’s wife, Jane.  She wishes to remain an independent woman, a scholar, and free of the chains of masculine dominance.  But, in creating a character of this kind, he does not condemn her as being an unreasonable woman following the fashions of the time.  Rather, her position is described as perfectly rational, and Jane is one of the most sympathetic characters in the work.

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Also, he adeptly depicts Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the evil organization’s secret police.  She smokes cheroot cigars, possesses a powerful frame, and has a no nonsense attitude toward how the organization will affect social change.  C. S. Lewis could have made this character overbearingly masculine, and yet he eschews this by giving her light feminine touches and showing how Mark finds her a little attractive.  If there were any deficiencies in C. S. Lewis’s earlier methods of writing compelling characters, he had certainly solved them by this novel!

Balalaika: the anime version of Miss Hardcastle

Balalaika: the anime version of Miss Hardcastle

All in all, of the few male authors able to delineate female characters, Ovid and C. S. Lewis stand head and shoulders above the rest.  (I suppose that we can place Ernest Hemingway at the bottom?)  One can learn more about a woman’s psyche reading his books than those of many a female novelist!

Do you know of any other novelists who are as capable of getting into the opposite sex’s head?  Especially male authors?

One more picture of Balalaika. I admit that I rather love this character–not Miss Hardcastle, though.