I was standing in front of a picture window of a hotel room in downtown Tampa, watching one of the most violent storms I’d ever seen. Despite the dangerous winds that were uprooting palm trees like some frustrated Spanish explorer still looking for gold, I couldn’t move away from the window. I was frozen, unable to make sense of the images outside, stupidly transfixed like when you’re a kid and you keep staring at the flames of a fire until the heat sucks all the moisture from your eyes.
Of course, maybe I just didn’t want to face what awaited downstairs. I was in Tampa for an academic conference, and I was scheduled to read a paper in half an hour. Now, if you’ve never had the pleasure, you should know that listening to academic papers at a conference ranks somewhere between having a root canal and being dead. The only virtue to this one was that my paper was on a fun subject. I was reading about Stephen King.
I had recently reviewed his book, Full Dark, No Stars, for PopMatters, so I had decided to expand on it for the conference. (Even academics aren’t above killing a couple of birds with the same rock.) Once I pulled myself away from the storm and headed down to the conference room, I was pleased to see one of my old professors. We talked a bit and everything was great—until he asked about the subject of my presentation. As soon as I said “Stephen King,” he reached out and touched my shoulder as if to say—what I’m about to tell you is really important. And then he said the words.
“Greg, I don’t like Stephen King.”
I smiled awkwardly, but before I could come up with a joke to change the subject, another academic whom neither of us knew, eagerly chimed in: “Oh, I don’t like him either. He’s terrible.”
Since that time, I’ve been struck by how many people have nearly violent reactions to the mention of his name. It’s weird. Lots of writers attract negative criticism, but few of them seem quite so hated by their detractors as Stephen King. Personally, I’ve never cared for Robert Kirkman’s writing, but I don’t hate it, nor do I go out of my way to tell people how much I don’t like him. Honestly, I just figure I’m missing something and probably oughta give Walking Dead another shot some time.
So whenever I hear people vehemently attacking King, I’m never sure what they hate more—his writing or its popularity. Because this much is true: from insecure academics to posturing hipsters, the world is filled with people who define themselves and their taste simply by rejecting the popular arts out of hand.
For my part, I’ve never been a Stephen King hater. I’ve also never been what you would call a hardcore fan. I’ve only read a handful of his novels, though I’ve liked them reasonably well. I am, however, very enthusiastic about his non-fiction. I’ve read Danse Macabre, his analysis of all things horror, twice, and would love to see an updated version. And his book On Writing is exceptional—a real gem in the otherwise glutted and depressing genre of writing books. In fact, the middle section of On Writing, titled “The Toolbox,” is as good a piece of writing instruction as I’ve ever seen.
But if someone really wanted to assess King’s literary significance, I’d probably point them to his short fiction. The short story, once a staple of the literary market and embraced by writers like Hemingway, O’Connor, and Carver, has gradually become an endangered species. How many story collections have Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Franzen published? I’ll give you a hint—you could stick your hand in a wood chipper for five minutes and still be able to count them. As Neil Gaiman writes in the introduction to Trigger Warning, “All too often short-story collections are viewed as vanity projects or are published by small presses, are not seen as real in the same way that novels are real.”
Then there’s Stephen King. King has published nine short-story collections, and his tenth is on the way this fall. That makes him one of the most prolific and dedicated short-story writers around. Moreover, two of the best movie adaptations of his work—Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption—both came from a story collection called Different Seasons, and in recent years he’s become quite a champion for the genre. He was even selected to edit the 2007 edition of The Best American Short Stories, a job that normally goes to more “literary” types.
My favorite King story comes from Everything’s Eventual, a collection that came out in 2002 and is notable for featuring the stories “1408” and “The Man in the Black Suit”—a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” that was published in The New Yorker and actually won the O. Henry Prize.
But I’m more partial to “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” even though I always mix up the title with that U2 album from the same era. “All That You Love” is an ingenious story with a simple plot about a travelling salesman who checks into a motel in order to commit suicide. But in between locking the door and eating a bullet, the salesman gets sidetracked, thinking about his favorite hobby—a seemingly innocuous activity that might just represent the most profound contribution he could ever make to the world.
King’s craftsmanship is on full display here, from the opening sentences where the salesman, Alfie Zimmer, pulls into a Motel 6 outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. That’s one of the most banal beginnings for a story that you’re ever likely to read. The traveling salesman—perhaps the most cliché profession in American literature—stopping at the cheapest and most homogenous motel chain in the heart of one of the most … ordinary parts of the country. That’s enough to make Wonder Bread seem edgy, which, of course, is the point.
Alfie, we learn, is an expert at selecting motel rooms. He knows exactly what kind of room to request and why, and when he enters his room, King gives a rundown of all the amenities, from the Gideon Bible to the fluorescent light bulb to the dead flies. The whole description feels like King’s answer to a creative writing exercise about setting. Look what I can do with a basic room at a Motel 6. Alfie even assesses the merits of two competing snack companies that supply most of the vending machines on this particular Interstate. J. Alfred Prufrock may have measured his life in coffee spoons, but Alfie Zimmer measures his in Snax and Hav-a-Bite machines.
In another writer’s hands, all of this generic minutia might communicate bleakness or misery, but King brings a tremendous energy and attitude to these commonplace markers of our mass-market, Postmodern world. He makes the reader want to invest in these trivialities because surely, since they’re the things we encounter every day, they must mean something. This stuff must matter.
But King is doing far more in this story than simply showing off his craft. As Alfie prepares to shoot himself, he starts thinking about the notebooks he will leave behind. It seems that for several years, he’s been compiling and annotating samples of roadside and bathroom graffiti. Dirty limericks, homophobic insults, expressions of racism and sexism, and even utterly inscrutable and enigmatic phrases with no context—these have been his obsession. He has studied them, even categorized them into sub-genres, gradually becoming a connoisseur of what must be the lowest form of written expression in the world.
King goes into great detail about these short writings, even scanning some of the poetry metrically in order to explain why a state like Maine gets repeated in one poem no matter where in the country the poetry is written. This is fascinating, brilliant material, scanning scatological syllables to demonstrate where form outweighs meaning and craft dictates subject.
I’ve already described far too many details of the story here, but what I love is the way King forces the reader to reconsider, not only the random scrawl on bathrooms and freeway overpasses, but also the cultural hierarchy in the world of art and literature. In this story, King is elevating an entire medium of expression that almost no one takes seriously, even though in many ways it has a purity that most of the finer arts lack. After all, the graffiti has developed organically, without any commercial contamination. No one makes a buck off a scatological poem carved onto the stall in a men’s room.
And like the oral tradition that eventually produced many of our great epic poems, this graffiti is a form of expression that won’t be denied—folk art by and for other folks, none of whom know for sure what it means any more than does Alfie. And yet, as King writes, “He had become convinced over the years that something was going on here.”
Indeed, something is definitely going on here. Coming from a writer like King who has made his career in genre fiction—a literary ghetto labelled by the powerful to delineate good from bad, art from trash—this story carries the resonance of self-reflection. Perhaps King sees a kindred spirit in that outlaw poet who uses a pocket knife to scratch his letter to the world onto the wall of a dark, smelly room. Regardless, King certainly reminds us of why it’s important to focus on the things that speak to us, even if they aren’t the things that our academic institutions or cultural tastemakers value.
Sometimes there is art in bathroom graffiti, just as certainly as sometimes there is art in a short story about a salesman in a Motel 6 in Lincoln, Nebraska.