Not just a shameful pleasure any more

Transcending the macabre without abandoning it, Stephen King may have done his best work

Review Novel

November 05, 2006|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Lisey's Story

Stephen King

Simon & Schuster / 528 pages / $28

No more apologies.

For years, I and many other serious readers have had to mumble their love of Stephen King as if it were a unmentionable fetish, a peccadillo that dare not speak its name in polite - read "literary" - company.

No more.

King, whose horror novels, stories, films and e-books have kept millions of readers up at night for more than 30 years, has crossed over. No, not into the other realms of which he writes so convincingly (The Shining is possibly the scariest novel ever written), but into the realm of unabashedly serious literary fiction.

Don't get scared - King hasn't left the horror behind. In fact there's an aspect of it woven into even this book. But with this latest novel, Lisey's Story, the master of the macabre has expanded his oeuvre. And it just may be - The Shining notwithstanding - his best work yet.

Devotees of King, like myself, have always recognized and appreciated his nuanced characterizations of people and emotion. King's fiction has always worked so well because it is peopled with characters we know - be they the shy child afraid of the dark (and always with good reason), the misfit teenager who turns the tables on her bullying classmates, the devoted fan who finally meets the writer she worships, the beleaguered housewife whose husband goes missing, the writer whose wife dies shockingly on her way to the drugstore. What resonates in King's fiction - beyond the spine-tingling and the goose bumps - are the characters: men, women and children (few writers are better at depicting the inescapable terrors of childhood than King) who are like the people next door - true, real, believable. They have real-people problems, real-people issues, even if there are ghosts or vampires, succubus dogs or tommyknockers hovering nearby as well.

Beyond the depth of King's characterization, there are the stories themselves. King knows plot. He knows narrative. He knows arc. He knows subtext. He knows how to make it all work.

And he's self-aware; self-aware writers take us to a far different, far deeper, far more penetrating place than those who aren't. In his memoir/essay On Writing, King was revelatory without being cloying, open without being confessional, expository without being self-aggrandizing. He was honest about the evolution of his own art and his own dark demons and what it takes to be a writer.

But there's always been that problem of genre with King. Genre undercuts genius. Serious writers - truly serious writers - don't do genre, except on a lark, a one-off. They don't do romance, mystery, horror. They're above all that.

No doubt some will suggest that with Lisey's Story King is doing the obverse - he's having a one-off with literary fiction, taking a holiday from horror. But not really - not if you know King. His literary debut, as it were, actually just expands on King's art to date. For King has always been a writer who cuts through the layers of human emotion to find what lies beneath.

Lisey's Story is pure King in its introspection, development of character, savage attention to emotional detail. Lisey Landon is the Maine widow of a famous writer, Scott Landon. Her beloved husband has been dead for two years. She finally gears up to go through his things, to sort his papers and unfinished work. In doing so, she is forced to remember what it was that drove his writing and his love for her.

In Lisey's Story, King revisits ground he began to chart in On Writing, Dolores Claiborne, Misery, Bag of Bones and Desperation. He mines autobiography; his own demons as a writer are reflected to a degree in Scott Landon. Landon embodies depth and substance; he's a character for whom the reader cannot but have immense compassion, even as his dark side is revealed. Scott Landon's horrifying childhood is much like the childhoods of some of King's own characters - gruesome and terror-wracked. It was Lisey who gave him strength and comfort, she who healed the wounds left where the demons gnawed and grappled.

Lisey is an extraordinary woman, the kind of wife that most writers only dream of having, the support and nurture of a great writer's art. There are no children in the Landon marriage because the children are Landon's books; the fruit of their union is his art.

That implies that Lisey lost something to the marriage, that all the gain was Scott's - the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the adoring fans and laudatory critics. But Lisey's Story is fundamentally a love story, a tale of two people with a grand passion that made them stronger and stronger as the years - 25 - went on. Lisey didn't love Scott more than he loved her. It's just that she survived him.

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