It Was Mother

It Was Midway

It Was Midway
Wayras Olivier

M IDWAY THROUGH his memoir—right before he explains the ins-and-outs of writing—Stephen King admitted to us how he escaped in-and-out of the eighties with the help of cocaine, alcohol, and diazepam. Another candid breath of fresh air was the passage where he admitted to mouthwash. Initially, he denied the charges when his wife confronted him about his Listerine ‘problem,’ as Scope was the brand he imbibed. King became, as it were, the subject of a swift intervention whilst his standard of living was on the rise. The entire episode is actually quite lyrical if one recalls an earlier entry about his mother addressing him in his youth about the time she once heard someone die. King thinks back:

"I asked how you could hear a person die and she told me that it was a girl who had drowned off Prout’s Neck in the 1920s. She said the girl swam out past the rip, couldn’t get back in, and began screaming for help. Several men tried to reach her, but that day’s rip had developed a vicious undertow, and they were all forced back. In the end they could only stand around, tourists and townies, the teenager who became my mother among them, waiting for a rescue boat that never came and listening to that girl scream until her strength gave out and she went under."

Was King himself playing the role of that little drowning girl as an adult? A scintillating and admittedly Freudian metaphor for her son’s future. King, swimming in drink and drugs; out past the rip; caught in its vicious undertow; crying out for help; not being able to return; and thus casting his family and friends in the role of helpless spectators as they watch him die. Such a connection, his mother’s story, for example, foreshadowing his near fatal predicament and intervention is what makes King, regardless if his memoir was intentionally structured as so, the golden plaque writer.

Other fillings in King’s memoir include a peculiar incident that prompted one novel in particular by applying what he called “…two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis…” The later merged with the former, he recalled, while working as a janitor in a high school one summer in the late sixties. A forgotten Life magazine article he had once read reopened his mind upon discovering that a certain metal rectangular box mounted on the girls changing room wall was not for paper towels but tampons. (The article postulated that girls, more than boys, are most prone to telekinetic powers. Especially as they near their menarche.) King envisioned a group of teenage girls behaving rather uncharitably towards one of their effete classmates and knew that this classmate could get tit for tat against her persecutors by channeling her incubating telekinetic powers. King later did, however, have several problems with his outline for Carrie:

“First and least important was the fact that the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second and slightly more important was the fact that I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. The other girls were chucking tampons and sanitary napkins at her, chanting “Plug it up! Plug it up!” and I just didn’t care. Third and more important still was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. I had landed on Planet Female…”

A planet that need not be problematic, King’s wife insisted, after she discovered her husband’s discarded manuscript in the trash, which he then finished—launching his career. But the most astonishing passage in his memoir is the one that appears most vacuous. One has to go back and reread it before noticing just how amputating it really is. It hobbles with insight, and it involves King’s muse:

“He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”

This idea of being ignored, as King puts it, is significant for two reasons. One, it’s a form of abuse; one that “basement guy” uses to intimidate King. And two, King is being ignored by an accomplished male muse, yet King does not resort, as a crutch, to objectifying the tried-and-true image of female perfection for stimulation and creative fertility when he’s forced into labor for his own trophies.

One can’t overstress, however, King’s near and total disregard for symbolism and theme —objects of worship he kicks dirt at:

“Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that King’s second method for generating ideas remains safe, common, and regional. “The most interesting situations,” he says, “can usually be expressed as a What-if question.” Citing examples for Desperation and Salem’s Lot, and finally

“What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)?”

His best novel (and film), grown, I believe, by mixing his topsoil “What-if” method with the subsoil of “basement guy.” The merging of two unrelated ideas, which King himself does not cite as the cause of Dolores Claiborne, but was, I’m convinced, because ‘basement guy’ is indeed Dolores’ husband: Joe (David Strathairn). Furthermore, Joe is a ‘basement guy’ bereft of accomplishments. For a wife, or daughter, Kathy Bates and Ellen Muth/Jennifer Jason Leigh, respectively, no relationship could be more shameful or terrifying.

Here, then, we regard another King film about wrongful accusation and confinement and escape; one that will move you emotionally; one that has a likeable lead character (who isn’t thick or passive); and a film that is less romantic than the one that was released a year before Claiborne about imprisoned criminals who were legitimately sensitive whilst their prison guard and warden remained legitimately insensitive. Such poetic role reversals are not redemptive and sound slightly banal and whimsical if one legitimately does not reflect on the nature of a scream, its horror matched only by the uncertainty of its cause—a hopeless predicament or the realization that no rescue boat will ever make its way.