Dark arts: King has just published his 58th book
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Why Stephen King should stop worrying about literary extinction

Mark Lawson’s Critics Notes. 

A character in Stephen King’s new novel suffers from “prismatics” – his term for sudden episodes of super-sharp eyesight. Admirers of the American writer may soon need such an optical transformation when looking at the list of his previous titles. Revival, published just five months after Mr Mercedes, fattens the King backlist of novels to 58, a torrent that has forced Hodder & Stoughton to print the “Also by” page in a type size generally used for the exceptions on insurance policies.

These titles have sold more than 350 million copies globally, yet their author seems concerned with the prospect of literary extinction. In one conversation in Revival, the enduring power of pop music is contrasted with the way that “pop fiction goes away”. Even more pointedly, the narrator’s mother is a devotee of Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), a bestselling writer of the early 20th century who, like King, came from Maine but is now largely forgotten.

More optimistically, the dedicatees of Revival include two predecessors in the horror genre whose reputations are very much undead – the creators of Frankenstein and Dracula – and so the question running under a reading of King’s latest fictions is whether the literary afterlife will treat him like his state-mate Roberts or Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.

Fittingly, Revival is also concerned in a much more fundamental sense with posthumous possibilities. The narrator, a session musician and recovering addict called Jamie Morton, recalls inspiring and terrifying encounters with Charles Jacobs, a Methodist cleric from his childhood, whose hobby of electrical experimentation encouraged metaphors in his sermons about the power of lightning. Jacobs is forced to leave his ministry after events culminating in a pulpit address dubbed the “Terrible Sermon” but later re-emerges in the territories – state fairs and carnivals, TV, the internet – where showbiz and religion meet in America.

Christianity overlaps with horror fiction in the central assumptions that the world will end and corpses may walk. Revival is King’s most systematic treatment of the depth of American belief in religious supernaturalism and his title cleverly alludes to both the “revivalist” evangelical religious movement and to another kind of awakening: the dedication to Shelley leads readers to expect that the electrifying Charles Daniel Jacobs must at some point try to galvanise dead flesh.

Although King has generally preferred to work within the populist frameworks of horror, thriller or fantasy, his books have recurrently shown a rare talent for the re-creation of personal history, most directly in the coming-of-age novella The Body but also in several books – including Dolores Claiborne and the JFK-assassination novel 11.22.63 – that intricately recall past decades.

Covering events spanning more than 50 years, Revival opens another room in this museum of American social history. Jamie curates the TV shows of his adolescence (Mighty 90 and Petticoat Junction), once-exotic food (Neapolitan ice cream, translated in Maine as “van-choc-straw”) and the euphemisms used in a puritanical era to avoid swearing (“dadgum”, rather than “goddam”).

As with Alan Ayckbourn, who has written plays at a rate similar to King’s novelistic output, the astonishing productivity risks becomes a defining detail that distracts from the skill and interest of the content. But, in both cases, the craft is remarkably consistent. In his 58th book in his 68th year, King continues to display un­cannily sharp eyes and ears and deeply engages with the religiosity at the heart of US politics and culture.

In one startling image, a huge crucifix is decked out in red, white and blue light bulbs, decisively Americanising Christ. A serious book by a major writer, Revival reads like a populist sequel to Sinclair Lewis’s evangelical satire Elmer Gantry.

Pitch perfect

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is rarely far from production but the current revival at Harrington’s pie-and-mash shop in London is the first to be staged in the sort of emporium (minus the flesh fillings) in which the murderous barber’s sweetheart, Mrs Lovett, works. This extends the trend of putting on shows in spaces that aren’t playhouses or that have been disguised: the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium is reconfigured as a disco for David Byrne’s and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love and the Donmar Warehouse fitted out as a women’s prison for the current Henry IV.

But these strenuous efforts to get away from a theatrical feel make me think of an exchange in Christopher Hampton’s play Tales From Hollywood (1982), in which a fellow writer asks Bertolt Brecht to explain the “alienation” devices – interruptions, banners, lighting effects – that punctuate his plays. Brecht replies that he wants “people to be aware that they are in a theatre”, to which his rival asks: “But what makes you think they think they’re anywhere else?”

The present obsession with making audiences think they’re not in a theatre seems equally doomed. A place where football is played becomes a pitch. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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