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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Essayism is ultimately about how literature can make a difference

Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is a beautiful and elegiac volume – having read it, I re-read it.

It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy.

Dillon is a writer on art and culture and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of an award-winning memoir from 2005, In The Dark Room, about losing both his parents in his youth. A remarkable meditation on memory, it shares with his other work – an examination of hypochondria, Tormented Hope, and his writing on the cultural significance of ruins – a wide and nimble range of reference as well as a sense of personal grief and literary anomie.

 In Essayism, Dillon deals, with a kind of weary shrug, with the etymology of “essay”. But more than just sauntering through “attempt”, “try” and “test”, he digs much deeper: from essayer he goes to examen, the needle of a scale, an image of control. The essay is both a proposition and the judge of it. What truly comes across in this book is that the essay may well be a sally against the subject, but what is tried, in the final reckoning, are the authors themselves. And, of course, found wanting, in both senses of the word. The essay, in Dillon’s account, is both erotic and absent, lapidary and profuse, and is at its best when always concerned with its own realisation of its inherent sense of failure. Before this discussion of etymology, though, comes a bravura cadenza of topics, placed to make us realise the essay is never about what it claims to be at all.

The close readings of various essayists are counterpointed by chapters headed “On Consolation”. This is some of Dillon’s most autobiographical writing to date. In Essayism he both excoriates and exorcises, using the essay as a flail and a balm. In other
essayists he finds mirrors of his own joys and despairs, particularly in a wonderful piece about Cyril Connolly, which deserves commendation simply for not mentioning the pram in the hall.

Essaysism resists defining its subject. As the critic David Shields has said, you don’t have a drawer labelled “non-socks”; and “non-fiction” is a singularly slippery notion. Dillon’s “essays” range from aphorism to such glorious sprawls as Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Some are journalistic, others are philosophic. To an extent, it is the very fluidity that Dillon admires; but above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. He reads more into the placing of a comma in a piece by Elizabeth Hardwick than most critics might find in the whole of her work.

This neatness, as it were, typifies the book. It is about noticing, and scrutinising, and reflecting. He has a keen ear for when a sentence has a word that is somehow out of key – “porcupine”, “broccoli” – yet possesses a strange beauty.

The book shifts into a higher gear when Dillon writes about his own depression. There is never a moment where he asks the reader to feel sorry for him. There is a steeliness in his descriptions of the nebulous haze that anti-depressants led him into; a stoic willingness to face one’s own sadness. Books, and the tiny curlicues of beauty he notes in them, were a kind of redemptive force for Dillon, far more so than Prozac. That at one point he found consolation in the pages of the NME is remarkable.

His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended.

It seems churlish to mention omissions, but I do so because I would like to read what Brian Dillon would have to say about figures such as William Hazlitt, Richard Steele, Matthew Arnold or Iain Sinclair (perhaps our most essayistic novelist). And Dillon’s assertion about the absence of a literature of sickness is unjustifiable if one considers Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Céline. His canon is, as all are, arbitrary: they are the pieces of writing that mattered to him when they mattered most.

The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it. 

Essayism
Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 228pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder