Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile Previous Previous Next Next
The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
King and rural America
I've had a perfectly lovely day. Paid my bills and did my taxes--in other words, caught up with life--and then took a long walk and visited a branch library I haven't been at, and had an actual conversation with a colleague on a day off. I love my cyber-friends, but I would especially love to have friends in my surrounding physical world.

Anyway, I had a book with me as always, and this time it happened to be literary criticism of Stephen King, and I noticed something of a disconnect between the way I read King and the way the review reads King. And I got to wondering... I rarely give much credence to "regional bias" in reading tone, but I'm curious about this particular issue. I'm interested in responses from King readers, but also in responses from people who've stayed away from King from various reasons, and will give some quotes before the poll so there's something to judge by.

The town knew about darkness.

It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. The town is an accumulation of three parts, which, in sum, are greater than the sections. The town is the people who live there, the buildings they have erected to den or do business in, and it is the land. The people are Scotch-English and French. There are others, of course--a smattering, like a fistful of pepper thrown in a pot of salt, but not many. This melting pot never melted much. The buildings are all constructed of honest wood. Most of the older houses are saltboxes and most of the stores are false-fronted, although no one could have said why. The people know there is nothing behind those false facades just as most of them know Loretta Starcher wears falsies. The land is granite-bodied and covered with a thin, easily ruptured skin of topsoil. Farming it is a thankless, sweaty, miserable, crazy business...

[List of town's sordid secrets]

...These are the town's secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face.

The town cares for devil's work no more than it cares for God's or man's. It knew darkness. And darkness was enough.

'Salem's Lot, "The Lot (III)"

They wheeled their bikes past the trucks and then rode on. The highway had turned close to the sea again and it was cooler. Summer cottages were jammed together in long and sordid rows. People took their vacations in those tenements? Larry wondered. Why not just go to Harlem and let your kids play under the hydrant spray?...

Part of him clamored at their sad and blatant ugliness and at the ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement park for families in station wagons. But there was a more subtle, deeper part of him that whispered of the people who had filled these places and this road during other summers. Ladies in sunhats and shorts too tight for their large behinds. College boys in red-and-black-striped rugby shirts. Girls in beach shifts and thong sandals. Small screaming children with ice cream spread over their faces. They were American people and there was a kind of dirty, compelling romance about them whenever they were in groups--never mind if the group was in an Aspen ski lodge or performing their arcane rites of summer along US 1 in Maine.

The Stand

Small-town murder in real life, he had found, rarely bore any likeness to the small-town murders in Agatha Christie novels, where seven people all took a turn at stabbing wicked old Colonel Storping-Goiter at his country house in Puddleby-on-the-Marsh during a moody winter storm. In real life, Pangborn knew, you almost always arrived to find the perp still standing there, looking down at the mess and wondering what the fuck he'd done; how it had all jittered out of control with such lethal speed. Even if the perp had strolled off, he usually hadn't gone far and there were two or three eyewitnesses who could tell you exactly what had happened, who had done it, and where he had gone. The answer to the last question was usually the nearest bar. As a rule, small-town murder in real life was simple, brutal, and stupid.

The Dark Half

I'm curious as to what you think of King's views on rural America, and what makes you think it.

I would describe my background/upbringing as...

Small town

How do you perceive King's attitude toward small town America?

Hostile and disdainful
Frustrated and resentful
Loves it despite its flaws
Just loves it and perceives it as superior

Is King's vision of American people generally...

hopeful and loving?
Other? (explain)
28 comments or Leave a comment
caitie From: caitie Date: April 1st, 2006 01:07 am (UTC) (Link)
I took the poll, though I've never read King. When I was a kid, my mom didn't want me to and I wan't a contrary child, and I had plenty of other things to read. And I've always associated King with R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike and other types of horror writers that my mom didn't want me to read and that I didn't want to read anyway because I'm a big wuss with an overactive imagination. Although, I know King doesn't strictly do horror, I've never been able to shake the association.

Anyway. I don't know that King is hostile to rural life, but the passages you've posted certainly gave me vibes of "disdainful"
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 01:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Out of curiosity, because I'm horribly nosy, what gives you "disdainful"? (Yes, I'm deliberately avoiding giving my own take.)
caitie From: caitie Date: April 1st, 2006 01:46 am (UTC) (Link)
In the second passage, Larry talks about "sordid" rows of tenement-like cottages and blatant ugliness and the "ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement park for families in station wagons."

He goes on to say that there's a "dirty, compelling romance" about American people wherever they are in large groups, but that still seemed negative (if it seems like he's fascinated with it despite himself) but more importantly, it doesn't relate specifically to rural America.

In the last passage, King's narrator is sarcastic about Agatha Christie's take on elegant dinner party murders in the countryside, and "as a rule, small-town murder in real life was simple, brutal, and stupid," sort of sealed the deal for me.

The first passage I read uncarefully because I thought it was boring. I don't get disdain from it as much as I take away the idea of the facade, like the whole honest, humble, small-town-living thing is covering up lots of ugliness.

Of course, the multiple choice question was a Best Fit sort of thing. Like the good little former AP-English student I am, I read the options first and then went and read the passages. I don't get a sense of hostility, and I certainly didn't get a sense that the narrators loved the small town America despite its flaws. I can see how frustrated and resentful might be a good choice, but I didn't really get from the passages a cohesive sense of frustration or resentment. A sense of disdain, sure.

It's not that I get the idea that King has any special sort of disdain for small-town American, but he seems to me to be saying in these passages that it's not any more honest or special or pure than anywhere else, despite the idea of small town quaintness and charm and values, etcetera.

annburlingham From: annburlingham Date: April 1st, 2006 03:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
In the second passage, Larry talks about "sordid" rows of tenement-like cottages and blatant ugliness and the "ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement park for families in station wagons."

He goes on to say that there's a "dirty, compelling romance" about American people wherever they are in large groups, but that still seemed negative (if it seems like he's fascinated with it despite himself) but more importantly, it doesn't relate specifically to rural America.

In the last passage, King's narrator is sarcastic about Agatha Christie's take on elegant dinner party murders in the countryside, and "as a rule, small-town murder in real life was simple, brutal, and stupid," sort of sealed the deal for me.

Huh. All those things made me think he was more positive, in the tradition of many American authors, who seek to see Americans as they are, not romanticized, and love them anyway.

We've just had a murder, as it happens, in our town - fernwithy's hometown - and, though there was a minor mystery, it was as senseless and brutal as King writes. No different from big city or suburban murders in that way, actually.

My reactions to the passages (I am not a King fan): the first: turgid. The others: more interesting that I'd've thought, but not enough to make me read him.
chienar From: chienar Date: April 1st, 2006 04:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Having grown up in that same home town, I can honestly say that the reference of the "sordid rows of tenament-like cottages" brings to mind some areas around the lake, particularly the portion where I lived growing up.

I remember stories of murders growing up in that area, hunting accidents that weren't; and of accidental deaths that had the whole town watching both related to the lake and not so much so. With this recent murder, my mom called to ask if I'd known the family - and she had as well (as she grew up in the area).

Honestly, King's perception of rural towns seems to very well mesh with my own.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 04:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Could you e-mail me with details? I don't have any in-town connections anymore.
chienar From: chienar Date: April 1st, 2006 06:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
sent to the one I have.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 05:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
All those things made me think he was more positive, in the tradition of many American authors, who seek to see Americans as they are, not romanticized, and love them anyway.

That's pretty much where I am with it. What I was curious about regionally speaking was how a reader's background might color it. I think small town people more or less do see it as realistically loving, but the reaction is a lot more mixed among suburbanites. I'm wondering if there's something in the expectations that's different. Suburbs often are built with the idea of everything constantly improving, getting out of the sordid city and so on, and I wonder if there's more of a sense that love is tied to "being better," while small towns are a bit more fatalistic. Or, more colloquially, I've noticed that suburbs do a lot of business with Chem-lawn to get rid of the dandelions, while I have many childhood memories of dandelion bouquets picked in the back yard. One isn't necessarily better than the other--there's something to be said for endless idealism, and something to be said for learning to love what's there--but it may play into different perceptions of the tone of a passage like the "stupid murder" one.
midnitemaraud_r From: midnitemaraud_r Date: April 1st, 2006 01:32 am (UTC) (Link)
It's been a very long time since I've read King (well, I've read On Writing several times, but I mean his fiction). I chose "other" because from my (vague) recollections of The Shining, Carrie, Salem's Lot and The Stand, (I read them well over 10 years or more ago), his vision of "American people" wasn't an 'either/or" type of thing, but more, in the basest sense, "some are black, some are white, most are shades of grey and fluid." In The Stand, for instance, it really depends on which group of "American People" you're focusing on, you know? Who is redeemed, who stands and who falls? Right there you've got hopeful, loving and negative, and he shows them all. "General" is relative to me.

As for his attitude towards small town America, regardless, most of his stories wouldn't really work in any other setting. And considering he lives in 'small town America' himself, and the care he takes in how the setting relates to the story he's trying to tell in itself, I can't help but think that he loves it despite its flaws.
From: underaloggia Date: April 1st, 2006 01:52 am (UTC) (Link)
I put "other" too, precisely because of the "loves it despite its flaws". At the same time, it occurs to me, King has the rare talent of being able to use harsh language without coming off as nasty--the vibe I get from the passages is cynical, but more in the "frustrated idealist" sense. His language (and the voice overall) is bitter and judgmental, but for whatever reason that sense doesn't extend to the *author*--or if it does, we're back to "loves it despite..." It's an interesting question!
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: April 1st, 2006 02:45 am (UTC) (Link)
What's the difference between urban and suburban? We've got suburbs here, but none of them are more than half an hour from the centre city, and only yuppies live in the centre city, so...I mean, if you're from a city, you'll live in a suburb of the city, but the whole city isn't exactly very big. Apart from Auckland, which doesn't count, because it's Auckland.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 03:32 am (UTC) (Link)
That may be just an American division, I'm not sure... though I'm inclined to say that, to use HP as an example, living in London would be urban, while living in Little Whinging would be suburban. (Hogsmeade would be small town, and the Weasleys would be rural.)
aeljn From: aeljn Date: April 1st, 2006 04:17 am (UTC) (Link)
Have fun with these definitions of "urban":

Have fun with "suburban":

I've lived on Air Force bases, out of the USA (twice), in suburbs, a suburb to a village [a real shock after living in a suburb of Washington, DC from 4th grade through my junior year of high school], and my current home is in the county, but it's built up enough since my late parents bought our house in 1975 that it's much like the suburban neighborhoods I grew up in, only with different style houses and vegetation. The only time I ever lived in a city was the 14 years I had an apartment in the small city I live near.

My mother became a city girl, but before Grandpa bought that house in Appleton, Wisconsin, she lived in a rural house. My aunt said they took their Saturday night baths in a tin tub.

Dad was an unabashed country boy from Oakmulgee, Oklahoma [they met at a USO in Phoenix]and he's the reason why we lived in the suburbs so much and have a corner lot.

How long it takes to get to the city from a suburb depends upon the traffic.
barbara_the_w From: barbara_the_w Date: April 1st, 2006 03:49 am (UTC) (Link)
King falls into that subtle category of "I hate people, but humanity is amazing"...
webbapettigrew From: webbapettigrew Date: April 1st, 2006 03:54 am (UTC) (Link)
I live about two hours from Stephen King (go Maine!) and I can say that he's a very philanthropic, caring person. He and Tabitha run a yearly contest for young writers in our state and has gone out of his way to donate large sums of money to UMO (my alma mater) and other causes.

He is more of a realist than anything, I think. He has grown up in rural Maine he lives in a small town (relatively--Bangor has about 40,000 people) and he knows our customs, our belief systems, the whole nine yards. His characterizations of the tiny villages and rural areas in his books are almost spot-on. What you see is what you get with him. Those people all exist, from the obsessed fans to the old people who hang out at the corner store and swap old stories all day.
webbapettigrew From: webbapettigrew Date: April 1st, 2006 03:55 am (UTC) (Link)
Also, with regard to my vote for "frustrated," since his accident a few years ago, he's made the point of trying to get some of these bad drivers off the road. The guy that hit him shouldn't have even been behind a wheel, yet he was. However, he's not having a lot of luck in preventing those same drivers from hurting someone else years later. He has voiced his frustration over this more than once.
aeljn From: aeljn Date: April 1st, 2006 04:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I can understand that. Sigh.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 05:28 am (UTC) (Link)
That's my impression as well (and I gave one of his books to a girl I knew who moved to WNY from Maine and was homesick, and she was like, "Screw the vampires... that's MAINE!!!!" ;p)

I'm also a small town girl (Western New York is mostly populated by Yankees who moved to the wilds of the west, and the street I lived in in Medford, MA, could have come from any of the towns around me in Wyoming County, NY), and I was always impressed by King's realism about people... but it feels to me like a really loving realism, so my vote tends to be toward "loves it in spite of its flaws." I can't even point to what it is in those passages--even the one about stupid murder--that strikes me as loving, but it always has. I've been surprised in the past to see people talk about King's negative world view and bad image of people. He's never read that way to me at all!

(And I've heard about the philanthropy and so on. He's good people, as far as I can tell. Kinda wish he'd spread some of his library philanthropy to the south a bit. ;))
norwegianblue47 From: norwegianblue47 Date: April 1st, 2006 04:31 am (UTC) (Link)
I think that King choses to portray rural life as negatively because it is so easy to depict loneliness in a rural area than in a city atmosphere, IMO, and when a person is alone, that's when their demons come out. But one of the books I've read by King Dreamcatcher, and while I know those guys didn't exactly live in the completely rural area, I think it was close enough. And they depicted the best, it was almost as if the guys from The Body stepped into a horror story and adopted a mentally disabled person. There was also a fairly decent guy from the military, and once they got down onto the level of the other miliatary guys many of them also seemed very personable.
I think in most of King's books, especially the "horror" ones, though I haven't read The Stand and Dark Tower, the horror aspect flourishes because it takes place in a small town, but anyone that survives also survives because of the small town atmostphere, and the loyalty that arises from it.

Or I could be completely wrong. I just got out of work, and this is when I am at my worst.
frenchbraider From: frenchbraider Date: April 1st, 2006 04:42 am (UTC) (Link)
I based my answer on reading It, and Tommyknockers, Carrie, and Bag of Bones. The truth is, I'm not really sure what to think sometimes, but it seems to me that King sticks just the minimum of interesting, memorable characters into his small-town settings to somehow make people see the - I want to say, appeal of them.
I'm not really sure if others feel that way, but I feel that it's the people that make the town.
nomadicwriter From: nomadicwriter Date: April 1st, 2006 10:01 am (UTC) (Link)
I think Stephen King's greatest strength is that he writes some of the most human people I've ever encountered in fiction. I think generally, the two settings you get in books are "people, but slightly idealised" (or ridiculously idealised, if you've got a bad writer) vs. "a grim, unrelenting portrait of completely dislikeable people". (Ahem. I think my bias against the "it's not 'literature' unless everybody's drowning in a pool of misery of their own creation," school of novel-writing is showing. 'Scuse me.)

I don't think King's take on his characters is negative, I think it's unflinching. But since almost all books where the characters are the 'heroes' flinch a least a little bit - they don't let the 'good' characters pick their noses, or have truly murderous thoughts towards hated family members, or be the way real ten-year-olds are instead of how adults imagine ten-year-olds - it makes King's seem negative by comparison.

But that's exactly why I love his writing, and I can usually get something out of even the books where he seems to have lost the plot completely. He includes the little unsympathetic details that other writers shy away from, and somehow it makes the characters better heroes, since they seem like real people taking a stand instead of idealised good guys.
keestone From: keestone Date: April 1st, 2006 12:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
From the passages you give, I'd say that King is trying to counter regional bias, showing the dark side of human nature in a rural setting rather than falling in with the country-mouse/city-mouse stereotype in which the country is presented as inherently more pure and virtuous than the city. (Takes deep breath. I should avoid academic run-ons. Really.) I guess he's showing a kind of love for small towns by saying, "See, it's just as flawed and human here".

This post fascinates me, but mainly in a "what am I missing?" way. The thing is, I've only managed to finish one Stephen King book, and that was because my sister's fiance gave it to me for Christmas and I felt I had to give King another chance. I read a short story at some point years ago, but it was completely unmemorable and I think it was why I didn't bother to pick up any more of his stuff. My sister's fiance gave me The Gunslinger and I barely managed to finish it; I borrowed Hearts in Atlantis from my sister in the laundromat and didn't bother to continue reading after the clothes were done. I don't consider myself a literary snob, but King's continual comma splices drive me up the wall, and I can't seem to get interested enough in his characters to get past his style. I know a lot of people who love his books, but at the moment, I think I might possibly pick one up if it were just sitting there and I had the choice of reading it or watching paint peel. What am I missing? Am I beginning with the wrong books?

Which of his books do you think is the best starting point? Are there books you'd tell people who aren't total fans to avoid?

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 04:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh, if I'd started with The Gunslinger, I probably wouldn't have gone on with the rest of the DT series. Very, very weird book. Hearts in Atlantis? Meh. It got good reviews and people have talked about complex themes, but it didn't do much for me.

If you're not accustomed to reading horror, the best starting place is the novella collection Different Seasons, either "The Body" (basis of Stand By Me) or "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (The Shawshank Redemption). If horror doesn't faze you, DS is still a good place--damned good stories, including the only King that every genuinely scared the crap out of me, "Apt Pupil"--but you also might look at Carrie, which employs a neat quasi-epistolary style, or The Shining, which deals with family breakdown (and is a lot more subtle than the Kubrick film!). I personally love The Stand and It, but they're very long, so if you haven't already decided to commit, maybe not the best starting point.
keestone From: keestone Date: April 2nd, 2006 06:58 am (UTC) (Link)
I do have a tendancy to read things in entirely the wrong order or start a series at the worst possible point. :) I actually started Hearts in Atlantis first; The Gunslinger is just the only one I actually finished. I didn't mind the weirdness of The Gunslinger, but I got the impression that it was building on a lot of stuff from King's other books, and I couldn't drum up enough interest in the characters or the universe to try to find out more.

Thanks for the recommendations. I'll probably give him another try at some point. If the first Orson Scott Card book I'd ever read was Wyrms, I probably would never have gotten around to reading Ender's Game.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 08:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Urban King

Yeah, I'd agree with that. It happened that I was thinking of the rural stuff because I'd read something about showing disdain, but his garbagey back lots with their amazing wild roses in the middle of New York show the same sort of thing. He hasn't had much truck with suburbs at all. Malden, MA, made an appearance in Cell--it was inhabited by zombies, but so was everywhere else.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 10:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Urban King

Well, the garbagey lot scene was set in 1976. Jake Chambers has had a dream about a deli, only to go to the site and find that it was demolished and no one ever rebuilt.

This is the place, Jake thought. Oh, yes.

He let the sign fall back, stood up, and walked deeper into the lot, moving slowly, looking at everything. As he moved, that sensation of power grew. Everything he saw--the weeds, the broken glass, the clumps of bricks--seemed to stand forth with a kind of exclamatory force. Even the potato chip bags seemed beautiful, and the sun had turned a discarded beer-bottle into a cylander of brown fire.

Jame was very aware of his own breathing and of the sunlight falling upon everything like a weight of gold. He suddenly understood that he was standing on the edge of a great mystery, and he felt a shudder--half terror and half wonder--work through him.

It's all here. Everything. Everything is still here.

...There were names; there was a babble of conversation that might have been ten thousand entwined stores; but above all was that gorgeous, swelling hum, a vibration that wanted to fill his head with bright white light. It was, Jake realized with a joy so overwhelming that it threatened to burst him to pieces, the voice of Yes; the voice of White; the voice of Always. It was a chorus of affirmation, and it sang in the empty lot. It sang for him.

Then, lying in a cluster of scrubby burdock plants, Jake saw the key... and beyond that, the rose.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 1st, 2006 08:30 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Urban King

Oops, no, wait. The Regulators was set on a suburban street in Ohio. It had more or less the same flavor as the other stuff, now that I think about it.
sistermagpie From: sistermagpie Date: April 3rd, 2006 03:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Commenting since I said other--I thought his view of American people was just...realistic. It seemed hard to pin down one way he viewed them. Some of them are negative, some of them are hopeful and loving.
28 comments or Leave a comment