Dark arts: King has just published his 58th book
Show Hide image

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

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit