The Terror Without
I have already written a preceding post entitled “The Terror Within.” This post would, therefore, seem an obvious continuation. In the course of my lifetime I have been lucky to read many books.
At college I used often resent the long book lists we received during our English Lit classes – not that I ever regretted reading them, but I doubly regretted the fact that they prevented me from reading those books to which I was naturally drawn. I was always a voracious reader from early childhood. I have also read many books recommended by friends. Here, I wish to review a book, recently lent to me by a good friend, Noel Young. The title of the book is Lisey’s Story by the one and only Stephen King. I have never really been drawn to the horror genre per se, but I was always entranced and enthralled by the earlier Gothic horror stuff, being a true Romantic at heart. One of my favourite Romantics and indeed favourite writers of all time is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on whom I have published an article in Studies many years ago, who was himself enthralled by Gothic horror novels. (His father, a conservative country parson, was to burn these “nasty” books on the young Sam). I did, of course, love Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818) when I first read it and indeed Robert Louis Stevenson’s marvellous The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, (1886) not to mention that superb book from the pen Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights (1847). All of these marvellous books are imbued with a sense of the supernatural, of the “Ósnádúr” or “beyond-nature” as we put it in the Gaelic tongue. More than that, they are steeped in a basic wonder and awe at the marvellous, the mysterious, the mystical, the religious, both angelic and satanic and the passionate, the unusual and the extremes of human emotions.
All of the above qualities I found in this very good novel by Stephen King. I would give Lisey’s Story 7 out of 10. Probably, I might give it more if I were a dyed-in-the-wool horror fiction reader. Basically, this novel is a love story of great strength and depth. How often have we heard that opposites attract? For instance, did not James Joyce fall in love with the virtually “uneducated” or at least poorly schooled Nora Barnacle? What a wonderful human being she was, totally dedicated to her man as he was to her. Humanity is deeper than so-called knowledge or the trappings of such knowledge. In this novel, Lisey's Story, we are presented with a famous award-winning but tormented writer called Scott Landon. Scott had won the Pulitzer and National Book Award literary prizes. He had to go on national tours from state to state, from university to university, giving readings and opening libraries and conferences. He had also written many novels, short stories and literary criticisms. Lisey (pronounced Lee-cee), his wife, loyally followed him everywhere like Nora did James. Lisey had not taken her degree as she fell in love with Scott and married early. In fact she had only given one interview in her life, and that was as her husband’s wife. All in all she was Scott’s confidante and care-taker just like Nora had been for James.
We know that often one partner in a marriage serves to expiate the demons of the other, or to use another metaphor to suck the poison out of the partner’s system, as it were. I remember reading a friend’s poem where he likened his girlfriend to a sea-bird reaching into his stomach and eating horrible tapeworms that were disturbing him. Lisey serves such a role for the great Scott Landon. Here are Scott’s words to his spouse, and King writes them beautifully: “You were my miracle,” Scott said. “You were my blue-eyed miracle. Not just that day, but always. You were the one who kept the dark away, Lisey. You shone.” (p 29) Simple but wonderful writing. Again, a little before this Lisey says, “darkness loves him.” (p. 21) Not a word here is out of place. I am reminded of Coleridge’s definition of good writing as being “the right words in the right places.” Indeed, King lives up to Coleridge’s wonderful definition. Immediately, we are introduced to the horror to come, “the dark” which is always a foreboding of evil of great depth and terror.
I have some friends who are alcoholics and they talk about “facing their demons.” In this task the AA and the constant telling and sharing of their story with each other helps and is indeed healing. However, in this novel, Scott goes to a powerful place (some mysterious pool somewhere) where he could face his demons head on, eye to eye. When the novel opens Scott is dead for two years and Lisey is attempting to come to terms with clearing out Scott’s study and is engaged in discussions with a university professor about the future of her husband’s important literary papers. As Lisey comes to face dealing with this clearing out of her husband’s study she has to face her own demons and also the demon traces left in her life by her late husband Scott.
What begins as Lisey’s efforts to sort through her husband’s effects becomes a personal perilous journey into the heart of darkness. This heart of darkness throws up such terrors as self-harming in the form of cutting and mutilation, physical and mental abuse of children, animal abuse, catatonic states and murder and attempted murder, and a murderous madman called Dooley. Somewhere in the midst of all this the lives of Scott and Lisey are enmeshed. Somewhere in the midst of all this horror and darkness we find the wellsprings of creativity, the secret language of love as well as the terror of madness itself. How Scott extricated himself and how Lisey does the same is the very heart of this marvellous novel. I will not spoil the story by giving away much of the storyline or plot. Instead I should like to confine myself to matters of style and diction.
I loved such expressions as how Lisey had felt “the pigeon-pulse of his heart” (p. 50) when Scott had been shot. Again read the following for clear and precise horror writing: “The death certificate will say something sane, but she’ll know: the dark thing finally saw him and came for him and ate him alive.” (p. 55) Or sample this for a brilliant chapter or rather section opening: “She awoke in the deepest ditch of the night, when the moon is down and the hour is none.” This is a brilliant sentence. I wish I could have written it. Ten out of ten, Mr. King for sheer stylistic brilliance. Dan Brown, eat your heart out! (Read Stephen King after reading Dan Brown and you’ll end up realising what a poor writer the latter is!) Or yet another sample of brilliant writing - here Scott is talking to Lisey: “I come to you and you see me whole. You love me all the way round the equator and not just for some story I wrote.” (p. 137) Again I am enthralled by this piece of beautiful writing: “In the stove, a knot of wood explodes and jumps. He holds her closer. She snuggles against him almost fiercely. It’s warm under the covers; warm in his arms. He is all she has ever wanted in the dark.” (p. 393)
Another aspect of books and literature in general in all its genres that has always bewitched me is the fascination with the imagination, while at the same time being the very work of the same reality. This description of the pool at Boo’ya Moon is rich and deep: “I think most kids have a place they go when they are scared and lonely or just plain bored. They call it Never Land or the Shire. Boo’ya Moon if they’ve got big imaginations and make it up for themselves. Most of them forget. The talented few – like Scott – harness their dreams and turn them into horses.” (p. 427) I am inspired to say to Mr King, “Ride on, Mr King, ride on!!”
Perhaps my only criticism with this novel is that it is far too long and that it could have benefited from some closer editing. I think Stephen King was aware of this as he does indeed defend his editor at the end of the book in what he calls the “author’s statement.” However, that criticism aside this is a wonderfully written book. Seven out of ten!
Above I have placed a picture I took of a rather ominous cloud over San Gimignano, July, 2006