Stephen King | Critical Essay by Michael McDowell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Stephen King.
This section contains 4,561 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Michael McDowell

SOURCE: "The Unexpected and the Inevitable," in Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, New American Library, 1986, pp. 83-95.

In the following essay, McDowell asserts that King's novels are effective because of their rhythm.

It was with some hesitation that I agreed to write about Stephen King's work. I was trained as an academic, with an eye towards analysis and criticism, but now I have only contempt for the sapping methods of literary "appreciation" taught in colleges and graduate schools. The idea of analyzing a volume of writing that I think very good seems unappealing and pointless. Increasingly, I find myself in the critical vein that either gushes, "Oh God it's great you've got to read it!" or moans, "Can you believe that anybody would publish this," or is silent from indifference. So that I think the best—and probably most helpful—reaction to King's work is a simple, "Oh God I've read everything, and I haunt the bookstores waiting for the next one."

Certainly, that is the common reaction.

Another hesitation is that my view of King and his work is probably skewed. In the first place, I know the man, and like him very much. For another thing, I am a writer of occult fiction myself, and therefore read King with a more specialized eye than his usual admirer. Usually, in fact, to be read by another writer is like having a carpenter over. He's not going to admire your taste in decoration, he's going to be looking at how you built the house. You try to show him the new living room furniture, and he wants to know what kind of cement you put in the foundations. When I read Stephen King, I'm looking to see how he puts the damn books and stories together, and what makes them stand so straight and solid.

This innate, technical evaluation is in operation every time I read a book of fiction. (For pleasure, I have to make do with books on astronomy and particle physics.) I pick up a book with a promisingly lurid cover. On page twelve I've guessed not only the premise, but five important plot points, and the ending. I always know what's coming next. Discordances of tone grate. Misshapen or improbable dialogue sounds in my mind like Hanna-Barbera voices. It's a great tribute to King that by some point in the story, I no longer think about the cement in the cellar foundations and don't care how tight the sashes are in the window frames. I'm simply propelled room to room through the narrative, as by an energetic host, gaping and wary and fearing. It can take me a great while to finish one of King's books, simply because he transforms me into a timid reader. "Oh God," I think, "he's not going to do that, is he?" I put the book down for a space, till I have courage to pick it up again and make sure that, indeed, he is going to do it.

He always does, of course. No wet fuses. And the climaxes are exactly right. The dynamite is laid, stick by stick, and every one of them goes off, in a precise, rhythmic pattern.

Which brings me to the point of this little essay.

Stephen King's rhythm.

It is what stands out most for me in the books, it is what makes me sweat with jealousy when I read him, it is what—I suspect—makes the narratives so enormously effective.

It has become increasingly apparent to me that books rise or fall by the rhythm of the narrative. A story can carry you along—despite lapses in grammar, probability, or tone—if the rhythm is right. This rhythm is manifest in many ways, and in different measurements—that is to say that there are rhythms that are apparent on a scale of kilometers (an entire book), and rhythms that are manifest on a scale of centimeters (a sentence or two), and everything in between. In fact, a novel may be looked at as a series of interlocking rhythms. Five sentences that are rhythmically just right form a good paragraph; five good paragraphs, set up just so, make a good section to be separated by asterisks; six good sections make a very good chapter; and then all you have to do is write thirty of those, arrange them in the right order, smooth down the lumps, and now you have a good, rhythmic book—one that propels the reader forward. Prologue to fin.

People out there who don't write books, or who write books thoughtlessly, are saying, "That can't possibly be how it's done." But it is. It's how Stephen King writes, and I know because, one, it's how I write and I recognize the phenomenon when I see it; and two, he's told me so.

Of course you can't freehand a chart of arcs and say, "Well, here's the shape and rhythm of my new novel." But you can have a story in mind, and start writing it. The rhythm begins to develop on its own accord. It's astonishing how quickly it's established—usually for me by the end of the second chapter. And every book's rhythm is different, just as the tone of every book is different. Then, as you proceed further and further into the story, the rhythm becomes more complex, and more demanding. You can't always feel when it's right, but by God, you surely do know when it's wrong. When it's wrong—and you're conscientious—you stop and fix it, and then you go on. At the end, you sit down, read the book through—not for spelling errors, not for the rightness of the dialogue or the plausibility of motivation—but to make sure that it reads well. Which is to say, to make certain that the rhythm is right.

Some scenes, you'll invariably find, are overlong considering their importance. This would mean that a reader would spend longer with them than he should. It's a fault most obvious in transitions between disjointed sections. So you trim them back so that the amount of space they take up on the printed page is commensurate with their relative importance to the narrative.

On the other hand, some important scene may not be given its proper weight in the story simply because you wrote it too briefly. Then, even if you got everything in the first time, you have to write a few more pages, simply so that the reader will be slowed down a bit during the important bits.

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about length versus importance. You know when it's wrong, and you can have a pretty good idea when it's right. If you write as much as King does (or as I do), the process of meting out space in a narrative becomes second nature. You don't often get it wrong. There's a little mental tape measure that reads off in pretty exact measurements. "This scene ought to get twelve pages. This transition ought to be three paragraphs and a snatch of dialogue. This can't be more than a page and a half."

To illustrate:

A few months ago, Stephen King asked me to read through the manuscript of his new novel, Misery, and tell him what I thought. I gladly acceded to the request, and devoured the book. I liked it very much, and saw many things to praise, and very few to object to. I made one small suggestion for a refinement of cruelty, and King said, "Very nice. I'll add it. Anything else?"

"The climax needs one more beat," I said. "I have no idea what it should be, but you need about six more pages of something. To slow it down. Because now it's over too quickly. Just a beat, that's all."

"I felt that," King replied. "But I was hoping I was wrong. I wasn't. I'll fix it."

And I know that he will have fixed it by the time the book is published. Because I've never come across even so small a lapse as that in one of his published books. I was gratified to find that error in rhythm, in fact, because it showed me that he had to work (even if only a little) to establish his perfectly rhythmic narratives. It wasn't all sheer and casual talent.

What this also shows, I think, is that the process of creating a rhythm actually exists. When I said that Misery's climax needed an extra beat, King knew exactly what I was talking about. A build-up needs a pay-off, and the pay-off has to be in proper proportion to the build-up. Otherwise, the story is unbalanced, and in some way the reader will be dissatisfied. All through King's books, there are smaller build-ups and pay-offs, culminating in a final pay-off that balances everything that came before. One great arc encompasses all the smaller ones. The pattern may be worked out subconsciously, or by instinct, but it's still no accident.

I remember when a consciousness of this kind of narrative rhythm first came into focus for me. It wasn't after studying literature through four years of college and three of graduate school. It was reading The Shining. And it was the scariest moment in the book, the point at which the boy Danny, having willed away the vision of the dead, drowned woman in Room 217, finds her bloated hands round his neck.

Time passed. And he was just beginning to relax, just beginning to realize that the door must be unlocked and he could go, when the years-damp, bloated, fish-smelling hands closed softly around his throat and he was turned implacably around to stare into the dead and purple face.

What happens next?

What happens next is that we get a new chapter. And it's not a chapter telling us what happens to Danny, and whether he's killed, whether he's only injured, whether he's able to will the ghastly residue away. It's a chapter dealing with Jack's parents.

I never read ten pages so quickly in my life, desperate to know what had become of the boy.

And when I found him again, at the beginning of the next chapter, Danny had bruises on his neck and was half-catatonic—but he wasn't dead.

At that point, I put the book down, and I said, aloud, "What a cheap device!"

Then I immediately incorporated the technique into the book that I was writing at the time.

Now, of course, the trick seems obvious. Bring the narrative to a fever of suspense—and then maintain that suspense by switching focus to an unrelated incident. While some poor victim hangs over the edge of the cliff by a fraying rope, pebbles spilling into his face, we switch to his distressed girlfriend begging a skeptical park ranger for assistance in finding him. The boyfriend can hang there for quite a while, in fact, till we get back to him. It's a cheap use of rhythm, but done correctly, it works. And it may be done so well, in fact, that the manipulated reader feels nothing but a straightforward anxiety for the poor victim at the end of the rope.

For me, the great lesson of that narrative sequence from The Shining was the importance of rhythm. I'm faintly embarrassed that it took this sledgehammer example of the thing to show me that. Now, I'm happy to say, I can be appreciative of much subtler sequence rhythms in King's work.

I much admire Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the first of the four novellas that comprise Different Seasons, and as I read it, I was astonished by the delicacy of the construction. To nearly any reader, it is apparent that the climax of the story will be the attempt of Andy Dufresne to escape from Shawshank prison. The middle part of the story consists of various legal attempts that Dufresne makes to avoid or to shorten his term in prison. His trial. His model prisoner attitude. His discovery of the real murderer. Each of these fails, as we know it will. Then, at last, he's left with only one solution—an escape from the prison. What we've been waiting for. Something clever, something harrowing.

And of course, I assumed, a great deal of suspense would be tied up in whether he makes it or not.

Here again, King astonished me.

Only three-quarters of the way into the narrative, I came across this paragraph:

In 1975, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank. He hasn't been recaptured, and I don't think he ever will be. In fact, I don't think Andy Dufresne even exists anymore. But I think there's a man down in Zihuatanego, Mexico named Peter Stevens. Probably running a very new small hotel in this year of our Lord 1977.

When I read that paragraph, I looked up from the book puzzled and shocked. I flipped to the end of the story, and saw that there was a good quarter of the narrative to go. Why give away the fact that Dufresne makes his escape, and survives? How would the rest of the story maintain a balance of suspense against what had come before?

The answer should have been obvious—the narrative maintained suspense through rhythm.

What I thought would come next was a detailing of the escape. But I was wrong.

What came next was the discovery of the escape by the consternated officials of the prison, told in completely satisfying detail. But still we didn't know how the escape was accomplished. And it is this that comes next, the narrator's methodical analysis of what must have happened, because it couldn't have happened any other way. Then at the last, a coda—the narrator's release from prison, and his resolve to join up with Dufresne in Mexico.

Thus, three very satisfying sections of narrative follow the "give-away" of Dufresne's successful escape, and each of them is a payoff for something set up earlier in the book. The corrupt prison officials' comeuppance. The method of Dufresne's harrowing escape. And—what came as a pleasant surprise—the resolution of the narrator's future.

None of these passages would have been half so effective if we'd been troubled with wondering whether Dufresne would succeed with his escape. That question put to rest in a brief paragraph, we're able to relish the solution of three more questions.

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption has a lovely, audacious shape, and I can't believe that it requires another writer to appreciate it fully.

There is another example of bold rhythm in Apt Pupil, the second and longest novella in Different Seasons. The very title of the piece leads us to believe that Todd will be instructed in Nazi Dussander's evil, and (because King never pulls his punches), we realize well before the end that Todd will take his rifle to the edge of the freeway and begin picking off motorists—in a feeble imitation of the concentration camps' commanders' power to decide, casually and arbitrarily, who is to live and who to die. That snipering will be the Apt Pupil's graduation exercise, and it will end the story. That's the Inevitable Conclusion to the story.

But I know that while King delivers the inevitable, he never delivers it in quite the way I expected it. If I'm waiting at the front door, waiting for the bell, he goes around to the back, and knocks.

So what, I wondered, would be the Surprise to temper the Inevitability?

Here's how Apt Pupil ends:

"I'm king of the world!" he shouted mightily at the high blue sky, and raised the rifle two-handed over his head for a moment. Then, switching it to his right hand, he started towards that place above the freeway where the land fell away and where the dead tree would give him shelter.

It was five hours later and almost dark before they took him down.

In other words, the snipering happens, but we don't see it. But all our worst imaginings—of what misery a young man with a rifle above a freeway can cause in the space of five hours—are excited by that simple, final sentence. This long story ends with a jolt precisely commensurate with what has gone before.

I remember when I first read that, I was shocked by its cold brevity. Then disturbed—because I sat back and thought to myself, "All right, just how many people did he kill, and who were they, and if I had been driving along that freeway, would he have picked me out for death?"

And then I nodded a little nod of professional acknowledgment to King, who had done it again. Provided me with the unexpected and the inevitable.

King likes horror movies. King has written them, and for every script he's written, he's probably seen three hundred. In a film, it is an easy matter to give the viewer a jolt. The hapless victim—let's make her a girl this time—climbs naked out of bed and peers through a darkened window, checking out that strange noise outside. She sees nothing. She turns back to her boyfriend, and says, "I didn't see any—" At that moment of course, a great hairy arm crashes through the window, grabs her around the throat, and a moment later, she spills backward through the sash in a shower of glass, never to be seen again. Later the boyfriend dies as well. (This is another in the "Fuck and Die" school of film production.)

Ominous music leads up to the jolt, the jolt comes in a sforzando of strings, and the audience gasps and represses (or does not repress) its screams.

But how do you do the equivalent in a book?

To see a hand crash through the window when you're not expecting it is not the same thing as to read, "She turned away from the window and reassured her boyfriend that there was nothing outside. Then a great hairy arm crashed through the window and caught her around the neck."

Not the same thing at all.

The difficulty is this. In a film, you can have five minutes of real (or is it "reel"?) time leading up to the climactic moment, and then the climactic moment takes less than a second. You have no control over the speed or the sequence of the action.

You can't do that in a book, because you can't control a reader's pace. You can't say, "All right, Gentle Reader, here's a slow part where I'm building suspense. Wait a minute, I'm still building—feel that terror mount?—a couple of paragraphs more, just to make sure you're good and primed, and now—and now—voy-la!—here's the surprise! Here's the great hairy arm through the window, and my God, weren't you scared?"

I've read books like that. I've even said hypocritically nice things to authors who write after that fashion, and if I'm not damned for that, I won't be damned for anything.

You just can't do it the way the movies can.

Or can you?

King obviously can, because his books are genuinely frightening. They deliver honest jolts. And they do it—have you guessed?—through rhythm.

There are ways of slowing a reader down and speeding him up. They are, in their way, quite technical, and have to do with the length of sentences, the length of words within those sentences, with the length and the alternation of the paragraphs the sentences make up.

A succession of long paragraphs, each composed of long sentences with great big words in them, is a lulling read. A good writer can make such a passage almost hypnotic. Then a one-line paragraph can jolt you right out of that trance. From the same sequence in The Shining, dealing with Danny's exploration of Room 217:

A long room, old fashioned, like a Pullman car. Tiny white hexagonal tiles on the floor. At the far end, a toilet with the lid up. At the right, a washbasin and another mirror above it, the kind that hides a medicine cabinet. To the left, a huge white tub on claw feet, the shower curtain pulled closed. Danny stepped into the bathroom and walked toward the tub dreamily, as if propelled from outside himself, as if this whole thing were one of the dreams Tony had brought him, that he would perhaps see something nice when he pulled the shower curtain back, something Daddy had forgotten or Mommy had lost, something that would make them both happy—

So he pulled the shower curtain back.

The woman in the tub had been dead for a long time …

Notice particularly how the last sentence of the paragraph describing the bathroom runs on, repetitious and soothing and dreaming. Then that's cut off by a single line of simple action—"So he pulled the shower curtain back"—which is given a paragraph of its own. Then the next paragraph begins in a terrible, matter-of-fact way—and that's the jolt.

When I say that the method for achieving this jolt is technical, I'm not suggesting that King did anything other than sit down at his keyboard and type out those very words, first draft, as they appear there. The technique is in his brain, and probably he doesn't know any way to write except in this casually efficient and effective manner. But to have constructed that passage in any other way would not have been either as efficient or effective. King's technique placed the words, the sentences, the paragraph breaks, the very punctuation in the manner that would precisely maximize the current of the jolt.

There are times when this rhythm is so important that the words themselves almost don't matter—when the sound of the words in the brain and their length and their alternation is to be considered much more than any specific meaning they convey. In the above passage, I would put the sequence, "as if this whole thing were one of the dreams Tony had brought him, that he would perhaps see something nice when he pulled the shower curtain back, something Daddy had forgotten or Mommy had lost, something that would make them both happy," into that category. The repetitious, stringalong nature of the passage is the giveaway—at least to me, who use it frequently—that it's the lulling rhythm at work on the reader here, and not the actual content of Danny's groping mind.

By the same token, there are ways of speeding a reader up.

One-sentence paragraphs is one. Short sentences within those short paragraphs.

Even sentence fragments to serve as paragraphs.

Rapid alteration of dialogue, with no adverbs ("…, he admonished balefully") and as few identifying tags as possible ("…, said the dead saleslady").

Put so badly, these sound—once again—like the cheapest of the cheap devices. But they work, and good writers use them. From the first page to the last.

And, contrariwise, bad writers don't use them. A bad writer may tell a story, and the story he tells may be a good one. But if he can't control the reader, the good story he tells won't be told well, and the reader won't be satisfied. I really do believe it is as simple as that.

Someone once asked me what I thought horror fiction did. What its purpose was. (King is asked this question frequently as well. It is only a very little less annoying that "Where do you get your ideas?") I don't know what he stipulated as the purpose of horror fiction, but I replied that when I wrote horror fiction, I tried to take the improbable, the unimaginable, and the impossible, and make it seem not only possible—but inevitable.

That is to say, the writer of horror fiction propels—or tries to propel—the reader up in a spiraling succession of improbabilities, and convince him that there is no other way that the story could unfold. That he presents the reader, at every turn, with a surprise—that after a moment's consideration becomes an inevitability.

You want the reader to say to himself, "Oh God that was a surprise, and a scary one, and I should have seen it coming, but I didn't, and yes—the author is right—it couldn't have been any other way." (This is, of course, only a little better than reciting the splendid review that the New York Times is going to accord your next work.)

This combination of the Unexpected and the Inevitable is, I think, what King probably does best. The foundation for the success of our belief in his narrative is laid, as has been often said, in the crushing normality of his settings and characters. I would add also that his characters' thoughts are crushing normal as well. That's why we believe in them. The action unfolds with a semblance of worldly verisimilitude, and then the unexpected intrudes. The descriptions of the horrors tend to be flattened rather than heightened: "The woman in the bathtub had been dead for a long time …" (This is surely better, one can see, than "The terrified boy stared at the naked, corrupting, purulent, grinning corpse of what had once probably been a cheerful middle-aged woman …" Which is how some writers of horror fiction write, I'm sorry to say.) King's flatness in these descriptions accords the horrors the same legitimacy as his characters' lawn-mowers, and their thirst for a cold Pabst, and their tedious marital squabbles.

It is this rhythm of the mundane and the unnatural—the crushingly mundane and the stupefyingly unnatural, I think I can say—that provides the power of King's horror. That the same language is used for both gives a terrible credence to the reality of the unnatural. I admire Lovecraft—and considering King's tributary story Jerusalem's Lot, it appears that he did too. It may be that he still does, but there seems to me to be little left of that progenitor in King. No obscure eldritch adjectives, no unthinkable monstrosities, no unnameable deities, no indescribable horrors, and no straggling dead man's ravings to end a story as the flapping obscenity sweeps down out of the sky and bursts through the shutters. King's characters may go mad, King's narration does not. It remains clear-eyed, matter-of-factual, observing entirely too much for the reader's comfort.

(What King still has in common with Lovecraft is the overwhelming sense of place. Castle Rock is not as overtly sinister as the valley of the Miskatonic, but nasty things happen there. And if there's not an actual map of Castle Rock on King's bulletin board, I've a pretty good idea that if he were set down in that mythical municipality, he'd been able to get from the TasTee Freeze to the Dew Drop Inn without asking directions from a homicidal cop.)

In this regard, the alternation of the mundane with the unnatural, King employs a kind of flatness—an absence of rhythmic alternation. When the corpse trundles on in a King novel, there are no Bernard Herrmann strings in the background, but the same Muzak that was playing before plays on, to disconcerting effect. In this case, it is the absence of a perceptible rhythm that lends its heightening effect.

I don't really think it would matter if not a single reader of King's work understood, in a technical way, how his books are built on interconnecting and intersecting rhythms. For despite his narrative expertise, King's books work for most in a way that they perceive as visceral. And, as I say, I no longer belong to the camp that analyzes, draws apart, deduces formulae and sketches diagrams. I'm happy to say I'm on that side that passes around a book (not a reviewer's copy, but one paid for with American currency at a book store or a supermarket or a shop that sells cigars and lottery tickets) and says, "Hey listen, you got to read this, and I promise you, it'll give you fucking nightmares."

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