An Audience with the King

On Tuesday even­ing, my girl­friend and I burst into an aud­it­or­i­um stuffed with fans of Stephen King and tried to not to vomit our respect­ive por­tions of a recent tan­doori din­ner. Our heav­ing breaths and pan­icked arrival were soon for­got­ten, how­ever, as Stephen King took to the stage. He’s a lanky, stooped guy with black hair that curls at the neck. T-shirt: blood red. Boots: Standard issue desert infantry (in sup­port of American sol­diers serving in the Middle Eastern Theatre). Sense of humour: bone dry. He speaks in a flat­tish accent and you could drive a coach and horses through the gaps between his words.

The ven­ue was huge. The crowd huger. Two grand? Three? Low-fly­ing air­craft rattled our dentistry; King quipped that each air­craft was a great mangle of steel and gas­ol­ine, and it would not be impossible for one to drop from the sky and plum­met through the heart of Battersea. “You all should think about that.” Nervous laughter.

King spoke to the (also nervous) inter­view­er about his writ­ing career; his alco­hol­ism; the bout of pneu­mo­nia that brought on Lisey’s Story, his latest book; the rela­tion­ship between the real world and its fic­tion­al coun­ter­part; and, to fin­ish, he read some unre­mark­able sec­tions of his new book. Half the audi­ence had got to their feet before he fin­ished answer­ing his last ques­tion — they were bust­ing to join the queue for sign­ing. It looked about two hours long, so my girl­friend and I went to the pub.

On my inter­pret­a­tion, Stephen King sees the Critic as the Devil on his shoulder that just won’t shoo. Time and again, his poor crit­ic­al recep­tion provided a sub­text to answers; oth­er­wise his ref­er­ences to the crit­ics were overt. It’s easy to see his point. King has received few lit­er­ary hon­ours in his long and prodi­gious career. His Distinguished Contribution to American Letters is the excep­tion that proves the rule. Why? Difficult to say. His work is vis­cer­al — but that’s cool, because books are emo­tion­al jour­neys. His prose is easy on the eye — no prob­lem, Hemingway got there first and bought the T-shirt. I think that his poor crit­ic­al recep­tion stems from a com­bin­a­tion of factors: the hor­ror genre; the pop­u­lar suc­cess; the lack of sub­stant­ive depth (how much extra would you get from a King nov­el on second read­ing?); the faith in nar­rat­ive clar­ity; cer­tainly the prose style with its seem­ingly-effort­less appro­pri­ation of pop­u­lar cul­ture and its free use of cliche.

Let me place my cards on the table. I think Stephen King is noth­ing less than one of the greatest writers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. He does suf­fer from Beatles’s White Album syn­drome, where he could be more picky about what he chooses to pub­lish, but…this is the guy who wrote The Stand; The Dead Zone; The Shining; Dolores Claiborne; Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. These aren’t great lit­er­ary works, but I regard them as great books (or novel­las).

So should his latest, Lisey’s Story, be left on the cut­ting floor or stacked in the win­dow of your loc­al Waterstone’s? Well, I’m half way through. The prose style is cliche-rid­den; the story straight­for­ward (I can guess the rest of the book and don’t expect to be too wrong). Overall, it just about hangs togeth­er. I’d put it in the same cat­egory as Rose Madder, Insomnia, and The Tommyknockers. It’s no clas­sic.

Overall, an inter­est­ing occa­sion. It was staged like a rock con­cert but, in the end, it’s a bloke read­ing. Special, though. One doesn’t get to see Stephen King in per­son too often (in the UK). Yeah, I’d go again.

Thanks to Watersone’s and The Times for organ­ising it. Next time, some prop­er signs so us coun­try bump­kins, who like to walk, can actu­ally find the ven­ue in time.

There’s a pod­cast of the even­ing.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

10 thoughts on “An Audience with the King”

  1. Good post, Ian, thanks! I am so pro­grammed into nev­er going out that it didn’t even occur to me to try to go, even though I “live in London” (ie daily com­mute to and from a suburb/Kings Cross).
    Interesting the books of King’s you high­lighted as his greats. I haven’t read all of King but the ones you men­tion are my favour­ites (have not read Dolores Clairborne), I think the Stand is my favour­ite of all, though I would sub­sti­tute Salem’s Lot for The Shining in your list. (The book of the Shining was bet­ter than the movie by a long way, though.)

  2. Wow, I’m jeal­ous. You got to see him!

    I’m a huge fan of America’s Schlockmiester and think he’s hor­ribly mis­rep­res­en­ted by the Snoberati. He’s not always a con­sist­ent author, but he’s a fas­cin­at­ing one. I just fin­ished Bag of Bones and before that From a Buick Eight and loved the deep slice of Americana he served up with the under­stated hor­ror story.

    I know you and King both share an approach to writ­ing — the sit­ting down and just writ­ing approach (it’s prob­ably got a real name. Or else make one up.) I am the oppos­ite. I think plan­ning and plot­ting is essen­tial to build­ing a story. But even though I approach things in a dif­fer­ent way, I really admire the huge range and depth of King’s writ­ing and that’s prob­ably a res­ult of not hav­ing a strict plot mapped out.

    I wrote a post about King a short while ago, but it wasn’t as good as yours.

    http://rolandhulme.blogspot.com/2006/10/long-live-king.html

  3. Maxine, you should have come along! I’m not a great fan of Salem’s Lot — while good, I think it con­tains the seed of King’s later word­i­i­ness, and I thought it was a little too deriv­at­ive of Stoker’s Dracula. Good book, though…

  4. I enjoyed your post on King, Roland — it’s def­in­itely true that the crit­ics of the world have done him a dis­ser­vice. At the same time, I can’t help but think that the real test of his class is the astound­ing sales fig­ures. I sus­pect King’s fic­tion will out­live the com­ments of his crit­ics.

  5. Crikey, she is. Still, that’s what blog­ging is all about — people are free to express their feel­ings. And read­ers, thank­fully, are free to judge the blog­ger as a com­plete tit.

  6. So, you thought that the great she-dev­il Madame Arcati would not get to hear of these foul words against her per­son, did you? I might have guessed that the little squirt Ali Karim would be the source. I fol­lowed the trail of his mis­spellings (eg “peice”) and here I find myself in this twi­light world of unre­con­struc­ted writer-love, yum yum, this temple ded­ic­ated to stalk­er grapho­ma­ni­acs and oth­er lapsed sub­scibers to the Dr Who mag.

    Arcati’s watch­ing you Karim, oh yes. This Arcati knows what to do with her crys­tal ball and where to shove it. But I thank you also for the great­er dis­sem­in­a­tion of the Arcati legend and you’d bet­ter carry on pro­mot­ing me if you don’t want me to invoke my unfriendly famil­i­ars who lurk on the out­er edges of the blo­go­sphere. You don’t want me to get too upset now, do you, Mr Al — MD of Chemicals and Gases — Karim?

    I shall now carry on explor­ing this blog and see what I see.

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