Flannery O’Connor, Meet Stephen King

VIOLENCE IS WIDESPREAD IN THIS CULTURE, also in our drama. This is irrefutable, and it would be a waste of space going into the Roadrunner-Coyote type of example here. It’s pervasive, people complain. Serious or comic, ironic or melodramatic, too many writers–critics imply–turn to random bloodletting as an easy way out, a give-me-the-gun or exploding-head denouement. It’s desensitizing, they say, boring, and worse (and here they’re judging not only the writer but possibly his or her entire genre), it’s cheap. Why, they say, can’t we have more uplifting stories about relationships? Why aren’t our films and novels more like our real lives, which are rather average?

I’ve been asked to say a few words about the violence in my work–that is, how there seems to be an atmosphere of dread and terror throughout the novels and stories which culminates or is released, usually, in a final murder. Gunplay. Shotguns especially.

I’d rather comment, first, on the presence of Grace in my work, or the ordeal of Faith and Doubt it seems all my characters go through. For some of them, trying to find a reason to keep living is literally a matter of life and death. Think of Glenn, in Snow Angels, who’s lost everything and has tried once already to end his life before taking those of his loved ones. He seems to find a reason in being born-again, for a time at least, but in the end he doesn’t truly believe (though he desperately wants to) and ends up killing both Annie and himself. Only Bomber, whom he recognizes as innocent, not-fallen, escapes his despair.

I write about desperate people. Average, yet desperate–how can that be?

We all doubt. We all have moments when we veer toward complete despair and wish ourselves dead. Some people linger there longer than others; some people stay.

In most of my published work, my characters are grappling with the same standard existential questions posed by Sartre and Camus and addressed by Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, John Gardner, John Cheever and other religious writers. When I say religious, I mean their characters try to find a place in the universe–in the cosmos–by themselves, and find that they can’t do it alone; that even with the help of their families, friends and lovers, they recognize their relationship to all creation must be mediated by some power–benign, hateful or indifferent. To put it in big fat Age of Anxiety terms: our essential loneliness and aloneness.

Most people want to be part of things. My characters aren’t mostly. They’re fringey people–Annie out on Turkey Hill Road alone, Larry Markham putting his town and his family behind him to walk the jungles of Vietnam, Marjorie out on I-40 in her Roadrunner. Young Americans. Unhappy, strange, capable of anything, purely unsure. They live in a country where everyone seems to believe so easily, to fit in. They don’t. They’re not even part of some marginal group; as Larry says, they’re just out there. They’re fuck-ups, people who don’t believe anyone cares. There’s freedom in that, but terror too. Anything can happen out there in the desert, in the jungle, on that snowy cul-de-sac under the water tower. It’s the darkness at the edge of those dead-end Rust Belt towns these people drive through, and everywhere they go, they see signs they think they ought to follow. Because they don’t know. Because they’ve got nothing to believe in.

They don’t care about manners or any kind of church. Jesus is like a biker movie dude sometimes–LOVE on one fist, HATE on the other, and the throttle cranked wide open.

It’s not philosophy. It’s not fancy. These people are messed-up and sometimes they do the wrong thing. Because of their despair, the wrong thing is sometimes dire. Estranged husbands ignore restraining orders and kill the women they supposedly love most. Sometimes they kill the kids (not in my book, in real life I mean).

And these are very obviously mysteries. Pick up the morning paper and try to figure out why a farmer would kill his entire family and then burn himself alive in his house. Why a young mother would smother her 19-month-old child in the night and bury her in a field.

I hope there’s no simple answer to these mysteries. I want to believe people aren’t that easy to understand, that even we who believe ourselves sensible often don’t know why we do some very important things. I want to find out why things happen, but I don’t believe psychology has all the answers. As Flannery O’Connor said, art wants to go past the place where psychology leaves off. That’s where understanding lies.

When do you give up on love? On life? Why are some people happy and others sad? How do you come to terms with loss? Grief? How do you live with killing someone?

I push my characters to the breaking point to see how they’ll act, whether they’ll find a way to go on. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, sometimes the violence of despair turns inward, destroying them (often quietly, without bloodshed, though that’s no less violent, the annihilation of a soul or spirit), other times outward, killing others.

Are these people insane? I don’t think I give them that escape route. Glenn is messed-up because he’s lost everything in his life; his decision to kill Annie isn’t based on rage but on sadness. And he’s uncertain, he has to coach himself through the whole thing and then is amazed that he did it. Strangely, it’s the first thing he’s succeded at in the whole book. It’s not right, certainly, but it makes sense to him. It seems like the best, maybe the only, choice he has left.

And Larry’s certainly not insane. He’s a good man trying to do what’s right in a difficult situation. It’s Vietnam, and while he does become necessarily hardened to the violence, he never loses track of what’s morally right. He’s a moral agent in the best sense, as I’m sure most people in war try to be. And Creeley, his shadow–his doppelganger or Frankenstein–only wants Larry to acknowledge that he’s there. Like the vet waiting for America to understand, all he wants is recognition that this did happen. He’s a memory come alive, and when Larry does acknowledge him, he goes away. He lives inside Larry now, and once Larry trades in his denial, he can go forward with his life.

How about Marjorie? Special case. Who can say? She maintains that she’s a victim yet at times she appears to be the mastermind. Is Natalie nuts? Lamont? All three? Or are they just dumb, hard-luck criminals? Who can you trust?

It’s interesting to note that Marjorie’s offhand critiques or appreciations of Stephen King’s writing mostly focus on his set-piece presentation of violence, which, ironically, is what the reader–now in King’s position of interrogator/researcher–is waiting for impatiently. The book wants to comment rather acidly on the commodification of aestheticized violence in King’s work and in the movies she alludes to–Halloween, Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde. At one point Marjorie wonders how King will present the murders, worrying that he won’t have his usual leeway to present all the nasty little details because the victims’ families will suffer–which I hope will make readers feel bad for calling these ‘the good parts.’ So along with all the violence in the book, there’s a criticism of how violence is used. Is The Speed Queen itself immune from that criticism? If not, why not?

On top of that, there’s the litany of institutionalized violence in the methods of execution through the ages and across the continents. Likewise, The Names of the Dead doesn’t flinch (and hopefully doesn’t indulge cavalierly) at presenting the effects of mechanized warfare. Remember, in Snow Angels Arthur knows the sounds of gunfire from years of news footage of Vietnam, as well as from deer season, his father’s Mossberg. So it’s out there, the violence, and young men especially are encouraged to join it, master it, fear it not. (My next book, set during World War II, and concentrating on one family, once had the working title Fear Itself)

Is America’s a violent culture? A gun culture? It’s not my job to answer that. And my use of violence isn’t an antidote or more complex complement to the violence in our mass culture. In The Speed Queen it’s a riff on it, maybe, but of the three, that’s the simplest and certainly least responsible book. It’s a hoot, a prolonged joke that happens to have a juicy character as its shifty center. In the others violence exists far beyond its visceral shock value, for purposes specific to the works, usually having to do with faith, despair, self-abnegation and, possibly lastly, moral choice.

To compare the use of violence in the three novels is difficult, in that The Names of the Dead has the war for its setting and is almost stiffly earnest in its presentation of its main character, The Speed Queen is a twisted comedy with a wildly unreliable, possibly crazy narrator, and Arthur in Snow Angels uses Annie’s murder as a tortured, even overreaching analogy for his parents’ divorce. Three completely different cases, I’d say.

Still, the body count is undeniably high, and I’d attribute that to my other literary roots (of which I’m equally proud)–horror comics, horror movies (Night of the Living Dead!), bad 70’s TV, sci-fi, and the great Stephen King himself. Peter Straub once complained on the net that he was being pigeonholed as a horror writer when he considered himself more of a literary writer. My complaint might be the opposite–that I’m actually a horror writer who’s been labeled a literary writer. If I had my choice, I’d rather have the readers.

And that explains why I tend to use more popular forms and plots than most literary writers, also why I try to keep my language stripped down and not too self-consciously pretty. Sure, the sentences scan, but the metaphors aren’t extended or turned into showy gee-whiz poetry. I want people to get it on the first read and to move fast through the book, to be excited to find out what happens next. That’s why Creeley’s stalker plot’s there in The Names of the Dead (can you say Play Misty for Me?), and the peekaboo romance on top of the Nam memoir arc. That’s why Snow Angels opens with the massive hook of a murder mystery, and The Speed Queen borrows the tape recorded voice of the condemned used in so many noir thrillers, then goes on to give us the elaborately detailed robbery-gone-wrong scene, a staple of Hollywood’s endless line of bank job movies. The work’s good and good for you, I hope. Fun. Nutty.

That’s all. Writing about my own work makes me nervous. Someone famous said: “Never complain, never explain,” which I think is pretty good advice. Like my characters–like most people–I don’t always know what I’m doing or why, I just try to challenge myself and write the best I can, be generous to my characters and not tell the reader what to feel. Thanks for tuning in. In terms of The Speed Queen, let me just leave you with a big quote from Flannery O’Connor:

. . . if our writer believes that our life is and will remain mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not . . . the kind of writer I am describing will use the concrete in a more drastic way. His way will much more obviously be the way of distortion. . . . It’s not necessary to point out that the look of this fiction is going to be wild, that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic, because of the discrepancies that it seeks to combine.

Thanks again to all you Stephen King fans for your letters, I appreciate them.

Drive safe–speed kills!

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