Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Liar Stephen King

A stomach ache at an old place sent me back to Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, however many years since the last time I read them. I made it through The Gunslinger in just over a night, and one thing in particular stands out. It might be the best known piece of the whole series, and while I can't find the quote, I'm fairly certain even King has talked it up a bunch. It goes like this: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

I spent a good portion of my 2013 in Shit review of King's Joyland talking about how, for me, a lot of what worked about it was how shitty the protagonist was. The novel's frame narrative is of the protagonist all grown up, recalling a spooky coming-of-age story from his past, when he summered as a carnie and some not-quite ghost stuff happened. The protagonist himself, however, couches it in this weird obsession with getting laid and disavowing that he cares about having (not) got laid up to that point. I also talked about how I was relatively unfamiliar with King, having basically only read The Dark Tower prior, and not much has changed in this regard. But then, rereading it now, I realize that it isn't Carrie or The Shining that casts some relief on that character, but that first line of Roland Deschaine's epic.

Because, as those of you who might have read The Dark Tower before might catch, that first line isn't so much a summation of what is to come as a bold lie about what is happening. It doesn't even take very long for Roland to work out what the man in black is doing is anything but flight. And this is notable because King goes to pains to point out that Roland is not particularly quick on the uptake; he's repeatedly compared unfavorably to his classmates in terms of wits and brightness, and even the sort of things that cowboys are expected to do in these sorts of Westerns (like not get surprised by a man resurrected by his enemy while he is eating hamburgers) is pretty much immediately established as beyond his capacity. The things that Roland is good at (shooting, chasing) are explicitly and ostentatiously described in a mechanized fashion. He is, in other words, painted holistically in this light.

So when the man in black finally does appear to Roland and his companion, it is unsurprising that he is, in fact, completely in control of the situation. That the man in black is, in other words, doing the opposite of fleeing. That, in other words, that lauded opening line is a lie.

It seems to me to be entirely sensible that one of King's major tools as a writer would be his capacity to lie. There is the obvious broad version, which is that fiction is a lie, and the narrower one, that horror requires someone willing to lie to the reader in order to maintain the suspense. But Lovecraft was hardly capable of lying -- think of what a shitshow "The Outsider" is in its ending for a perfectly serviceable example, or of how clearly his racism shows through in everything -- and it is well understood the debt King owes him. Having still not read a ton, I don't know that I can say that King's big contribution to the world of letters, genre or otherwise, is in lying, but it seems a small thing worth considering. As (and if) I read through the rest of The Dark Tower, I certainly will be, at least.