Wednesday, May 08, 2013

A (n Old) Book Review

Lisey's Story
by Stephen King

Contains spoilers - not just for this book.

There are just a handful of Stephen King books I haven't re-read over the years. The main reason for this is down to whether I have a vivid memory of the story. For instance, I haven't re-read King's book Hearts In Atlantis since it came out in 1999 because I can still vividly picture the book and the main story and three novellas that accompanied it. It may be due a read soon enough, but its links to The Dark Tower have meant that I'm reluctant to go there again for a while. I also like to give a definite period of time between reads - 10 years is often a good time because you can forget essential things. With The Shining, which I recently finished, it was 30 years, so it seemed almost like a new book and boy did it surprise me. I'd like to re-read Duma Key, but part of me is yelling that it hasn't been long enough to... surprise me again.

The underlying sub-plot of Lisey's Story is that the book's protagonist does not remember huge swathes of her time with her dead husband; like she has deliberately forgotten things that happened between them to ensure her own sanity. That was a little how I felt when I started to re-read this book. My initial thoughts were that it was so awful that I blotted it out, but after a couple of hundred pages I started to think that perhaps the theme of the book casts some magic spell over the reader, causing them to forget what Lisey forgot?

It was a little like reading The Shining again, in that I kinda knew what was going to happen, but I couldn't quite grasp it and then as I got closer to the climax I started to wonder if, by some bizarre thing that I can't remember, both the wife and I never finished it; because neither of us could remember much, if anything about the last 100 pages. Baffling.

Another problem, especially around the time this book was written/published - 2005/6 - was that King was coming in for some massive criticism both for the wholly unsatisfactory conclusion to his opus - The Dark Tower - and the poorly edited Cell, which seemed a bit like a 21st century rehash of The Stand with cell phones and zombies rather than Randall Flagg and Mother Abigail. Similarities between King's The Stand and Cell were almost cringeworthy, especially when one of the books main characters is killed halfway through (except when Nick Andros died it was shocking, in Cell it just felt... well, contrived. But I digress...) and I suppose many people looked at Lisey's Story and at Rose Madder and thought the similarities there were too close for comfort. The thing is, they're pretty much diametrically opposite; they just have a similar theme and that theme is 'somewhere else', just like the Dark Tower story or any other novel where the walls of reality are Lovecraftian thin.

So, I read Lisey's Story again and found it surprisingly hard work. It is written in a peculiar way and I'm thinking that perhaps I didn't take it seriously the first time around because I maybe missed some little things that would have stopped me from getting so angry with Stephen King. Sensible common sense me is shouting in my brain about how certain things just would't happen and then I realise I'm reading a fantasy horror novel and actually some of these things might happen because of the influences being exerted from ... other places.

Scott Landon is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist; as rich as Croesus and possibly, like most brilliant novelists, bonkers. He dies and two years later his widow, Lisey (or Lisa) Landon is cleaning out the place where he did most of his work and dealing with the mundane as well as the extraordinary; because she was married to this famous 'National Treasure' she suffers from the fanatics and fanboys who think her husband belongs to them more than he did to his wife - which, as the book goes on, you realise just how dependent he is on her, when he was alive and maybe even now he's dead.

Her brilliant dead husband has a past that is both terrifying, all too real, and just a little bit odd. Yes, he was abused by his father and he lived a young life that, through snippets, looked as horrible as you could imagine; but Scott and his brother Paul were both child prodigies but came from a family that had a long and terrible secret. It is never fully investigated and as the story goes on and you learn more and more about the past, there is never really an explanation as to why the Landons are the way they are, only that the Landreaus before them, in France, had had to leave their country. What is hinted at is a play on the idea of lycanthropy - the Landons are not werewolves, but if they 'go bad' there is a vicious and physical transformation that dissipates on death and if you didn't go the way of the so-called 'bad-gunky' you went 'gomer' or catatonic.

It's here where you start to see similes. Lisey's sister Amanda is a 'gomer', she also, like Scott's family, is a cutter - someone who self-mutilates and then escapes to a catatonic state when everything gets too much. It is during a bad episode with Amanda that things start to happen and we are introduced to what is essentially a nap hand of stories that will all converge at some point. There is Lisey's voyage of discovery - which includes meeting her own personal bette noir; there is Scott's back story plus the bits that Lisey has forgotten; and there is this other story - the fantasy world that Scott (and his brother) used to escape to, to get away from their bi-polar-like father and his cruel love. Scott calls this place Boo'Ya Moon, but in 'reality' what it really is is the pool of inspiration or imagination that everyone has access to but not everyone takes advantage of (and others take too much). It is also all of the dark places in your mind; the imagination that you'd rather not have, with unpleasant things hiding in dark corners and something that stalks you, but only when you're in that place after you should be. The imagination is the best creator of the wondrous, but it also creates the nasty things that are almost impossible to transcribe or describe.

What is clear is this book is both a whodunnit and in many ways also a time travel story. Much of it is in flashback, but that is also done in a very strange way, almost disjointed - not the way it is told but with an odd chronology. Also when I say it's a whodunnit, it is and it isn't. A Bool Hunt is a Scott Landon thing and that is a series of puzzles to unravel the truth of something, with a prize at the end. Either the dying Landon placed a future Bool Hunt for his wife, to be triggered at a specific junction in time or his ghost was still using his wife as an anchor, to protect her from something he knew was coming. The upshot is that you sense there's a lot more to Scott Landon and his family that you don't hear or read about. You finish it with a sense that  everything is already laid out in front of us and Scott's ghost just tagged along to ensure that it happened. Not that Scott's ghost manifests at all; it's a metaphoric ghost.

I suppose the sense of the dying Scott Landon 'knowing' what would happen as a direct result of his 'fame' and 'eccentricity' is a stretch even readers of horror novels would struggle with and that is perhaps why I struggled to find anything endearing in it first time around, but there's no denying that I now have a lot of respect for this book because it is very clever and had it never bothered with the (over long) epilogue you could well have walked away from it with a sense completion, of a circle having been closed forever. Plus, my memories of this book consisted of the piebald monster Scott was scared of and this pool of imagination where everyone comes to drink, but some come to catch fish or sail out to the centre and go for the bigger prizes and all of this seemed too much like another tip of the hat to the Dark Tower mythology.

While there is a movement - whether its by King or to quote Scott Landon, his 'incunks', to link all of his books together, on re-reading this I can see why people want to link it to other books - it seems to be the way with King - but I feel that King has many worlds he walks in and the Mid and End World ones might be right next door to The Territories (so close you can walk between them with barely a notice), or Boo'Ya Moon, the higher planes achieved by Ralph and Lois in Insomnia or the totally alien and unpalatable world glimpsed in From a Buick 8 (which, incidentally was set in Pennsylvania, where Scott and Paul Landon grow up). Jack Sawyer might have travelled to a world very much like that of Roland of Gilead in the two Stephen King/Peter Straub collaborations, but Jack's Territories are not Roland's world and neither of them are Scott Landon's. To wander into and reference a completely different King book (with no deference to the uneducated) thinnies probably exist in all of his worlds and act as a way for them to interact with each other and to confuse us 0- his constant readers.

Lisey's Story possibly ends up asking more questions than it answers, especially about the nature of this fantasy land and the things that transform there after dark. It is another example of the prick-teaser in SK; the way he likes to lead his readers up a dark alley with promises of something even more dark and weird, but then brings you back into the light, leaving you wanting more of this subplot, this segue, possibly even at the expense of maybe not finishing the book it comes from (Pet Semetary being the case in point for me).

Reading it the second time, I really started to feel an empathy towards Lisey Landon and realised that while she and her sisters never realised it, they had much more in common with the Landons than they realised and you do get the feeling that Scott had spent his life looking for one of the Debusher girls, especially the youngest and pluckiest of them, because he knew that she would be the anchor he needed to stop himself from becoming like the others in his family. In fact, the entire story made so much more sense second time around that I kind of dislike myself for being so down on it when it came out. I seem to recall opting not to review it (although I'm sure someone will send me a link and say, "Oy, memory man, what about this?") but I'd guess it would have been a poor review. Or maybe, in the days that followed reading it, the memory of it just started to fade away, because, you know, Boo'Ya Moon and the Pool are something we all visit but we maybe don't ever want to remember it because it will drive us mad.

In fact, I can no longer recall what this review is about, but if it was a Stephen King book it was probably awful...


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