Ruled by the Subconscious

A confession: I’m having trouble making my way through Stephen King’s Under the Dome. I must also confess I’m a bit puzzled by this. I’m definitely a fan of King’s work. And from what I’ve read so far, this book sticks pretty closely to high points of his career. What gives?

I’ve actually been trying to get through Under the Dome for a few months now. A while ago, I wrote about Piers Anthony here on the Gutter, mentioning that between Anthony and King, they supplied a vast quantity of titles that I’ve read in my life, mostly by way of their prolific outputs (at a point in my life when I had more time to read than I do now!). I promised I would take a look at Under the Dome as a counterpoint to the Anthony piece. But it hasn’t been working for me: the point of a Stephen King novel is to burn through it in a breezy manner. Getting bogged down in the slog is the opposite experience than the one you’re supposed to have.

Stephen King is an interesting case in the area of fantastic fiction. He’s sold mega-millions of copies but you never get the sense that he’s churning out books in a corporate-drone kind of way. He follows his muse, is generous with his artistic good fortune, has survived more bad adaptations of his work than any other writer in the history of the universe (here’s looking at you, eight versions of The Children of the Corn!), and he writes rather candidly about his own life. In a way, I think success has gone to his head in the same way that success has gone to Ursula K. Le Guin’s head: both have applied their considerable talents (and general hardworking artistic ethos) to whatever they felt like, rather than the command of a calculating suit back at Multicorp HQ. Granted, King has stuck closely to one genre, and has sold more copies! But I admire King’s work in much the same way I do with Le Guin’s. And his self-considered magnum opus, The Dark Tower, came to a canny conclusion not that long ago.

To nail down the comparison, I would invite anyone interested to take a look at Steering the Craft (Le Guin’s book on writing) versus King’s On Writing. Le Guin’s elegant prose speaks for itself, but King is just as serious about his writerly craft, even if his turn of phrase doesn’t ring out quite as smoothly. I was actually really charmed by On Writing and I would highly recommend it, even for those folks who are not King fans.

On Writing helped me put a finger on something about King’s books and short stories; particularly, Under the Dome vs his collection from a few years back, Everything’s Eventual (which I managed to burn through last month in a King-appropriate short period of time). Not sure why it was such a surprise to me, but King knows  a lot about grammar, sentence construction, crafting an effective paragraph, and all the bits and bobs of an attentive and careful writer. I never considered that aspect of his writing before, and I have to admit that, looking back on his books, his skills at the basic language-building-blocks of story are impeccable.

Take a step back though. In On Writing, King talks about his writing method for larger questions of setting, character, and plot/theme. He generally runs with the muse (giving his books a much looser feel at this level), then goes back to do a conceptual-level rewrite once some of the later bits have revealed themselves to him. The subconscious approach has served him well over the years! It’s given him an effective and easy way to tap into the common fears of society. That he’s a good writer with the basics gives his narratives that extra oomph.

But what happens if this is your writing style and your subconscious starts to run dry? Or give out on you? Or betray its origins in a childhood of a past era? Or, in the unkind, and I think completely mistaken, formulation of Tom Shone over at Slate, what if you did your best subconscious-driven writing while under the spell of alcohol or drugs, then you got clean?

My guess is that the short stories in King’s Everything’s Eventual can overcome this resistance of mine simply because they are so short, and rely much more on King’s writerly craft. King can experiment, have fun, cause a scare or two, then call it a day. With Under the Dome, the narrative stretches out much longer, and the engine of the story has to be something more than sentence and paragraph construction.

For the dome idea, King goes to great pains to say that his book is not inspired by the recent Simpsons movie; unfortunately, the “hey this was in my desk since the 70s” excuse doesn’t make it seem any fresher, frankly.

Also,  I wonder whether the Maine-small-town-under-extreme-circumstances shtick has worn a bit thin by the time Under the Dome comes along. If his subconscious is giving him the same-old same-old, then maybe he needs to give it a workout or a refresher period or similar. On the Le Guin comparison again: Le Guin in her recent books has taken us into one woman’s life in an ancient epic, translated an Argentinian fantasy collection into English, and returned, rather successfully, to her YA stomping grounds.

Would it even be possible for King to sit down and game out a new direction for himself in this way? I’m not sure if the result would be a Stephen King novel in the same sense. And as I’ve hopefully been making clear all along, I give the man a lot of credit for riding this train as far as he has.

I’ve been catching up on some King adaptations (but not The Children of the Corn movies! Anyone seen them?), so I’ve just finished watching the two big miniseries, The Stand and It. Wow, a blast from the past, and not always in a good way–and I think I’ll complete the nostalgic trip with Silver Bullet (which I haven’t actually seen before) and Stand by Me. Anyone got a favourite King book or movie? Least favourite?

2 replies »

  1. I’m looking forward to re-watching Silver Bullet! It’s been years since I saw that one, and I’ve been wondering whether I will find it as suspenseful this time around.


  2. Comparing Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King is intersting. It’s true that they’ve both explored a range of genres to better and worse fan reception. I think one difference for me is the same thing I’ve always kind of felt about Stephen King. Regardless of his evident skill at writing and constructing a story and his flashes of brilliance in his images and plain creepy ideas, I’ve always felt he needed an editor–or at least more of an editor that he gets, given his success. And I can see how that’s tied to your observation, he relies on his instincts and they are good, but a reliance on subconscious and instinct doesn’t help with the tediously cruel work of revising and cutting text.


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