Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stephen King - Everything's Eventual

I’ve never told anyone this story, and never thought I would – not because I was afraid of being disbelieved, exactly, but because I was ashamed…and it was mine. I’ve always felt that telling it would cheapen both me and the story itself, make it smaller and more mundane, no more than a camp counselor’s ghost story told before light’s out. I was also afraid that if I told it, heard it with my own ears, I might start to disbelieve it. But since my mother’s died, I haven’t been able to sleep very well. I doze off and snap back again, wide awake and shivering. Leaving the bedside lamp on helps, but not as much as you’d think. There are so many more shadows at night, have you ever noticed that? Even with a light on there are so many shadows. The long ones could be the shadows of anything at all, you think.

Anything at all.

Stephen King’s maligned a lot, both by elitists and people who I doubt have read a book in the past three years. He’s got (occasionally mortal) flaws in his writing, and anyone who says that he hasn’t declined post accident is deluding themself. That being said, you can always tell which of the haters have actually read and dismissed Stephen King and which of them have skipped the first step and just dismissed him. Those detractors say that he doesn’t care about characters, that his books are just fast paced noise with no higher goal than shock factor and body count. While I won’t deny King’s occasional love of shock horror, the other parts of the typical King criticism are as close as you can come to being objectively wrong while making a subjective statement.

King’s character development and prose are what keep me coming back to him. He has the ability to step into someone’s head and write in style that is distinctly human from the first paragraph of any character’s point of view. Unfortunately, due to his meander-happy style of no-outline writing, his later books just wallow around for a few hundred pages before coming to a closing so unsatisfying that it boggles the mind. Everything’s Eventual, despite consisting of short stories, none of which clock in at over ninety pages (and that’s the highest by a significant margin), is the most blatant example of this that I’ve yet seen.

[Two notes on the coming review:
1. I did not read the story The Little Sisters of Eluria. It’s a Dark Tower story and, seeing as I’m planning to read the Dark Tower this year, I’d rather appreciate it in its proper context.
2. This review will contain SPOILERS for several stories in the collection; The Man in the Black Suit, Lunch at the Gotham Café, and Autopsy Room Four, to be specific.]

King hasn’t lost his gift for characterization. Almost every voice in the collection is perfectly captured. The gullible, overwhelmed thoughts of Dink (Everything’s Eventual) are as vivid as the despondent world weariness of Alfie (Everything That You Love Will Be Carried Away). King also hasn’t lost his obsession with character created euphemisms. For the most part, these are well done and endearing, though the endless parade of eventuals in the title story, standing in for awesome, gets horribly old.

Unfortunately, the prose can only enchant you for a few pages. After that, you start looking for content, and that’s where the collection disappoints again and again. The failures can basically be broken into two categories.

The first of these categories is the nonstarter. These stories read like the opening chapters of a novel, where the main event is still a good hundred pages away at the least by the time you’ve turned the last page. The best example of these is The Devil in the Black Suit. The story depicts a young boy going fishing a short distance from his house. While fishing, the boy encounters the devil. Now, in the notes section, King says that a friend’s grandfather insists that, one day, he met the devil and had to not let the devil know that he’d caught onto the deception. This reminds me of a section in the excellent How Not to Write a Novel entitled Why Your Job Is Harder Than God’s. See, in real life, meeting The Man in the Black Suit could be the defining event of your lifetime. In a Stephen King short story, on the other hand, the reader’s reaction is more like: and then?

And it’s that and then? that’s really missing here. The kid talks with the Devil, tries to hide that he knows it’s the Devil. The Devil says that the kid’s mom died. The kid starts running away. Alright, the reader thinks, we’re getting somewhere. Not really, because he gets away without all that much trouble. He goes home, and his mother is…still alive? Okay, wait, his father doesn’t believe him and the two are going to head down to spot and see what happened, so I guess there’s still space for something to happen, right? Wrong. They get there; it smells faintly of sulfur. The end. Let me see if I can sum up the major events of the story: kid has a dream. Oh, and the place smells of sulfur. Forgive me if I’m not shaking in my boots yet. Now, the story’s not a total wash. The voice is perfectly captured and a joy to read. There’s one genuinely disturbing image. And…well, no, that’s it. I’m sorry, Mr. King, but a good prose style and one paragraph aren’t enough to salvage thirty pages of nothing.

The majority of the stories, however, fall under the second, even more disappointing, category, the one where you get what seems like an interesting set up before everything nose dives so badly it’s sometimes hard to watch (as King said in Riding the Bullet: Well begun, too soon done). The best example of this is Lunch at the Gotham Cafe. The story opens with a man being left by his wife. We get ten pages of good characterization, inhabiting the more-than-slightly shell-shocked shoes of Steven Davis. At the eleven page mark, Steven and his wife, and his wife’s lawyer, sit down at the café for lunch. Without warning, the maitre d starts screaming about some invisible dog and draws a knife.

Let’s pause for a second, as the set up’s now over. Writing Excuses often talks about how the beginning of a story is a promise to the reader. So, looking back over what’s happened so far, let’s pick out those promises. First of all, the divorce. We need some form of resolution there in order to make the first ten pages not feel like a total waste of time, be the resolution painful acceptance or happy reunion or something in between. Second, and more immediate, we need to figure out what the hell’s wrong with the maitre d. There’re some secondary threads hanging around – such as Steven’s attempt to quit smoking – but those two are absolutely essential, and I can’t imagine a good ending without those being resolved.

And, just so you know, neither can Stephen King. The maitre d’s insanity, and the following fight, are, at first, surprising and odd enough to be unsettling, but the bastard’s built like some form of table waiting super-zombie, and he just does not die. After what feels like a lifetime of reading about this guy getting mutilated again and again, the maitre d finally manages to die (in a manner less climactic than several already attempted non-deaths) and the story just fizzles out from there. The reason for the guy’s insanity? Unless screaming Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee counts as a rational motive, the guy resembles a windup toy with a knife more than an actual character. The divorce? The main character really might as well have been in there alone.

You know the joke that, if you can’t figure out how to move the plot forward, you just throw in a man with a gun, hoping that you can shift things around while the audience’s captivated by all the bright lights and loud noises? Well, that kind of feels like what happened here. The people sit down, but King doesn’t know where to go, so he introduces a nice distraction to jump start the plot. Problem being, he still doesn’t know where this thing’s heading, and after wasting as much time as he could (seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fight scene that can best be summed up as “meandering” before), he just realizes that he better just slap a nice THE END on. Oh, and I’m somewhat perplexed that the cop’s don’t feel any need to speak with the primary target, not to mention the killer’s killer, after the whole scene, but whatever.

After seeing an endless stream of novels and short stories from the man, many people are understandably curious as to whether he’s actually got anything fresh left in him. Unfortunately, Everything’s Eventual is no more satisfying in originality than it is in consistency. I’m fine with an author putting his own spin on a tired cliché, but the number of stories whose notes have a variation of this is my attempt at a [insert horror cliché here] story is just ridiculous. These are, for the most part, predictable from the first (stale) note to the final (disappointing) let ring.

Let’s look at Autopsy Room Four. This is King’s take on the standard buried alive drill; the protagonist wakes up on the autopsy table. You can see the tension gathering with every step the doctor’s take as they prepare to cut into him, but seeing isn’t feeling, and the knowledge that this’s supposed to be a nail biting moment doesn’t quite make it one. You know the guy’s going to get out okay from the get go, and that just makes you want the doctor’s to hurry it up and discover him already. In the notes, King says that he wanted a more “modern” take on the whole thing, with the doctor’s discovering the patient’s living status by his erection. You know what? That might’ve been just amusing enough to save the story. But saying that’s what happens is a bald faced lie. The erection isn’t discovered until afterwards, what saves the patient is another doctor jumping onto the stage and giving a painfully implausible info dump right before the scissors start cutting. It’s something that would be unbearably convenient in some amateur’s first stab at writing, and King’s treatment is no better.

The connection isn’t a total wash, mind you. There is one decent horror story, The Road Virus Heads North. It’s another of those aforementioned my take on stories, with the victim this time being your standard moving picture tale. Still, despite all the warning signs to the contrary, the story manages to hit some scary, though predictable, notes. Standing above that is Riding the Bullet, the collection’s one story that’s actually, genuinely, good. The story’s horror aspect is actually somewhat reminiscent of The Man in the Black Suit, but the chills are the least important thing here. Riding the Bullet is a portrayal of sorrow and guilt that manages to be almost touching enough to make up for the rest of the collection.

Almost, but not quite. This collection has fourteen stories, out of which I’ve read thirteen. Out of those, one was good, one was decent, and eleven ranged from lackluster to cringe worthy. I’ve read a lot of newer Stephen King – hell, my first book by him was Cell – and this is the first time King book that I can truly classify as bad. Get Riding the Bullet and ignore the rest.

1 comment:

  1. Two notes on the written review:

    1. The Little Sisters of Eluria takes place shortly before The Gunslinger (the first book in the Tower sequence), though it stands fully apart from the main narrative, so I'm not sure how much context you would have lost by reading it here.

    2. Everything's Eventual - the story, not the collection - is also a Tower tale, and possibly best enjoyed after book 7 (since it features a character contained therein).