Saturday, June 7, 2014

Pull Leather, You Republican Skunk!: A (Sort of) Review of "Slade"

Today's review is a tricky one, because it deals with a Stephen King short story that is arguably not a short story at all, and is also not available for the vast majority of King fans to read.

What does a blogger do with such a curious beast?

He presses on.

"Slade" was published once, in serial installments over the course of eight consecutive weeks in his college's newspaper, The Maine Campus.  The story has never been published again.  In order to gain the proper perspective, it's necessary to first consider the circumstances behind the story's publication.

During his senior year of college at the University of Maine, King wrote a weekly opinion column for The Maine Campus.  That column was called "King's Garbage Truck," and there were nearly fifty installments of it.  (This strikes me as prime material for a book collection, and while King himself has indicated that such a thing will never happen due to the relative inadequacy of the material, a blogger can dream, can't he?  It would make for interesting reading regardless of the material's quality, or of the extent to which King's opinions may have changed over the many years since.)

The final installment of "King's Garbage Truck" appeared on May 21, 1970, and three weeks later, on June 11, "Slade" began running.  It is not clear to me whether this story appeared under the heading of "King's Garbage Truck."  I've seen no indication that it did, so let's assume that it did not.  However, it seems certain that most contemporary Maine Campus readers -- the ones bothering to actually read it -- would have associated the two, and I think that any reviewer of "Slade" needs to understand that the two things probably came from much the same space in King's mind.  The fact that they were published in essentially the same manner argues for their tonal similarity, if nothing else.
In his book Stephen King A to Z: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Work, George Beahm has the following to say about "King's Garbage Truck":
Of King's work habits one staffer observed: "King was always late.  We would be pulling our hair out at deadline.  With five minutes or so to go, Steve would come in and sit down at the typewriter and produce two flawless pages of copy.  He carries stories in his head the way most people carry change in their pockets."

Beahm does not give a source for this quote, but I see no reason to assume that it is anything but genuine.  [A different version of the same story can be seen in an interview in this video, beginning at roughly the eighteen-minute mark.  Thanks to Mike for pointing that out in the comments!]  Of "Slade" itself, which he characterizes as "a hilarious send-up of the Western genre," Beahm says:

Though this would be a welcome, and different, addition to any King collection, it will never be issued because King considers it juvenilia and has steadfastly refused all attempts to bring it back into print, to the point of having his lawyer write a litigious letter when The Maine Campus considered reprinting it, along with King's nonfiction columns, in a book for fund-raising purposes.

I can see where King is coming from.  Speaking as a fan, I would love to be able to read my way through those "King's Garbage Truck" columns, and having "Slade" in book form alongside them would be satisfying.  However, I suspect that most of the columns probably hold very little appeal outside of the realm of hardcore King fandom; the majority of fans would likely just be confused and wonder why they had paid good money to read such stuff.
I suggest a happy medium: when the inevitable authorized biography of King finally appears, the columns could theoretically be reprinted as appendices to it.  You could do the same with any juvenilia, theoretically; stuff like that is interesting, provided it is placed in the proper context.  I can understand King's desire to suppress it, though, since he feels -- probably with merit -- that it simply is not representative of his professional work.
Now, if I may work my way backward a bit, and return to the issue of "Slade" itself, let's take a moment to consider what that anonymous Maine Campus staffer had to say about King's "Garbage Truck" work habits.  If he or she can be believed, King seemingly wrote the average column in a matter of minutes, presumably with little in the way of revision.  Given that "Slade" appeared in more or less the same manner as the non-fiction pieces, is it reasonable to assume that the eight installments of "Slade" were also written in that same last-possible-minute fashion?
It probably isn't entirely reasonable to make that assumption.  Assumptions are never a good place for the critic or reviewer to begin, and once you start allowing them to breed with one another, you've started down a road that can only lead to bullshit opinions on your part.  So, am I going to assume that King wrote "Slade" in haphazard fashion?  I am not.
However, given that the story reads precisely as if it had indeed been written in a haphazard fashion, I am going to say that I feel the evidence points toward there being, at the least, a strong possibility that King did indeed write the story quickly and without benefit of substantial revision.
All of which is a means of me saying that to my way of thinking, "Slade" reads like the work of a guy who was just dicking around.  I'm no expert, but it feels to me like the sort of thing written simply because its author had to write something, possibly on a deadline, and figured virtually nobody would ever read it outside of the few thousand students who dutifully thumbed their way through the school paper each week.  So, is King right to withhold the story from modern audiences?  Yeah, I think he is.
Don't misunderstand me; I'm glad I got to read it.  A transcription of it was sent to me years ago by a fellow collector, and I am eternally thankful to him for doing me that kindness.  However, I can only cock a skeptical, Vulcan-esque eyebrow at Beahm's assertion that "Slade" would fit into "any King collection."

As far as I'm concerned, it would feel very much out of place.  It'd be like having a mix tape that consisted of a bunch of Metallica songs with the original version of "Yakety Sax" tossed into the middle somewhere.  It's certainly possible for one person to enjoy both "Yakety Sax" and, say, "Master of Puppets," but only a fool would put the two on the same mix tape.  There's a thing called "internal consistency of tone," children, and shenanigans like putting comical sax music up against Kirk Hammett violates it.
So would putting "Slade" in a typical King collection.  He already made a serious violation by putting "Head Down" in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and this would be that tenfold.  "Head Down" is awesome, and it's out of place as fuck.
"Slade" is decidedly less than awesome; beyond issues of internal consistency vis-à-vis a potential collection appearance, it simply isn't a very good story.  It's better than anything I could have dashed off as a college senior, or (maybe) that I could dash off now.  But so what?  Does that mean it's good?  No.  It's got a few chuckles, but the prose is sloppy, the references are dated, and the jokes have roughly a one-in-five success ratio.
Let's turn again to Beahm and allow him to summarize the story for us:

     The story begins, "It was almost dark when Slade rode into Dead Steer Springs.  He was tall in the saddle, a grim-faced man dressed all in black.  Even the handles of his two sinister .45s, which rode low on his hips, were black.
     Riding a black stallion named Stokeley [sic -- Beahm has misspelled "Stokely"], Slade is in mourning for Miss Polly Peachtree of Paduka, who he believes to be his True Love, "who passed tragically from this vale of tears when a flaming Montgolfier balloon crashed into the Peachtree barn while Polly was milking the cows."
     But Slade doesn't have time to wallow in self-misery; he becomes embroiled in a land dispute between the evil Sam Columbine, whose henchman is Hunchback Fred Agnew, and the lovely Sandra Dawson.
     Dawson is kidnapped by Columbine, as Slade goes off in hot pursuit.  And, in the best traditions of the West, he duels Columbine . . . but it's a Pyrrhic victory for Slade: Sandra Dawson is in fact Polly Peachtree, suffering from amnesia, and her true love is not Slade . . . but Columbine!
     Disgusted, Slade perforates them both and rides off into the sunset on his trust steed.

Much could be added to that, and if you're keen to learn more, I would point you toward Stephen J. Spignesi's book The Lost Work of Stephen King, which includes much fuller summations of each chapter.  You can also get recaps in Rocky Wood's Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished, so that's another option, but I would still steer you toward Spignesi because his book also contains excellent summaries of each and every one of King's "Garbage Truck" columns.  (Wood has also covered those, but in a different book: Stephen King: The Non-Fiction.  Buy both of Wood's books, because you know you want them.)
I'm reluctant to do much in the way of actually reviewing the story.  Like I said, it's not particularly good; y'all ain't missin' much by bein' deprived of the ability to read it.  I think King is making the right call by refusing to put it in any of his collections.  And since he hasn't, and most -- if not literally ALL -- of you will not have read the story, what point is there in me going in-depth?
That said, I cannot help but dive into a few issues, each of which will be easy to deal with without a knowledge of the story being necessary.
To the bulletpoints, away...!

  • King uses a great deal of dialect to represent the down-homey Western twang that is familiar to, like, anyone who has ever seen vintage Westerns.  But, to be blunt, King here is not doing a very good job of using the dialect.  I won't belabor this, but I will give you one example: in one instance he uses the phrase "mebbe yore" in place of "maybe you're."  Now, speaking as a Southerner, I can tell you with very little hesitation that you are unlikely to ever hear anyone use an accent that would contain both "mebbe" and "yore."  "Mebbe" would represent a hick accent of the sort that people use when speeding their language up, whereas "yore" represents the language being slowed down.  You would be unlikely to find any Southerner, or any Westerner for that matter, using those two versions of those two words one after the other.  The dialect in the story is full of problems like that.  I am not against the use of dialect in prose dialogue, but I do insist that it be done well and accurately.  Do I hold this against King?  Not particularly; as I've indicated, it feels to me like he was just dicking around.
  • Several King scholars have mentioned that "Slade" holds a sort of relevance to the genesis of The Dark Tower, given that King wrote it at around the time he was also beginning what would eventually become The Gunslinger.  There are, indeed, certain echoes.  For example, Sandra Dawson's land dispute is due to her father's death, and is vaguely reminiscent of Susan's problems in Wizard and Glass.  King's dialect also prefigures some of the dialects used in the Tower series, and there is also a joke that has rather major implications decades later.  ("You came just in time!" Sandra cries upon being freed by Slade from captivity.  "Damn right," he replies.  "I always do.  Steve King sees to it."  Here, King is obviously using the metafictive aspect of that idea as a joke to show how ludicrous his own story is.  But he would obviously return to that idea circa 2003, to much more serious effect.)
  • One of the more amusing aspects of the tale is Slade's predilection for shooting people as a sort of warning.  In one instance, he is asked for his autograph by a small boy; "Slade, who didn't want to encourage that sort of thing, shot him in the leg and walked on."  That's the story's best moment, as far as I'm concerned.
  • Slade kills a ruffian at one point.  "Slade was a peace-loving man," King writes immediately afterward, "and what was more peace-loving than a dead body?"  It's a funny idea, but King flubbed the joke; it ought to read "and what was more peaceful than a dead body?"
  • Slade's horse, Stokely, had his name reused decades later when the character Stokely Jones appeared in Hearts In Atlantis.
  • "Pull leather, you Republican skunk!" hollers one villain as he attempts to gun Slade down.  The story becomes progressively more political as it proceeds, with references to "Hunchback Fred Agnew" (a Spiro Agnew stand-in, obviously, although the hunchback business confuses me a bit), John Mitchell, "Big Fran Nixon," etc.  None of this cuts very deep, but the implication, for me, is that King is juxtaposing the Western -- which by the late sixties was seen as a genre for the establishment, representing the falsity of what America claimed to be in the face of what it really was -- with then-modern attitudes toward the failures of the Nixon administration.  King is using satire to say that the mindset typified by conservatives of the time is bullshit; and his means of doing so is by mocking the Western, a genre held dear to conservatives of the era, for whom John Wayne was practically a sub-deity.  (I'm no conservative, but I'm all for holding Wayne up as a sub-deity; he is one of the best of all movie stars, for my money.)
  • "He started to reach for another famous Mexican cigar, changed his mind and rolled a joint," King writes at one point.  One imagines large numbers of University of Maine freshmen thinking this was among the funniest things they'd ever read.  Slade will later ask for Solarcaine to put on his blistered trigger finger.  Much of the story's humor is of this variety: having a Western hero do things that normal people might do, but which movie cowboys never (at that time) did.  It's worth pointing out that "Slade" was published some four years before the granddaddy of all Western spoofs, Blazing Saddles, premiered.  "Slade" isn't doing the Western spoof anywhere near as well, but give King at least a bit of credit for beating Mel Brooks to the punch(line).

So, in summary, I don't think "Slade" amounts to a whole heck of a lot.  It is intermittently amusing, and if you are a King scholar, you will be interested in it; you might even overreact and see it as being more worthy than it probably is.
Mostly, though, it's a lost tale that doesn't particularly deserve to be found.  If I didn't know King agreed with me, I might feel that assessment is too harsh, but he seemingly does.  So it's fair game, as far as I'm concerned.
One final matter: do you guys think I ought to continue including this on my list of King short stories?  King himself does not; and part of me feels that I ought to defer to his official stance.  However, since the story demonstrably DOES exist, and was officially published, I think it deserves to be listed.  What say you?


  1. Good point and breakdown of the dialect dumbness, there.

    I say yes, include every and anything. It's fine for King to make an official/ sanctioned list, but why should that stop the rest of us from examining it? (And by the rest of us, I mean you.)

    I meant to read this yesterday since I've got it via email and you gave us fair warning you were going to do it. But I didn't. (I read The Sun Also Rises all day instead. Hell of a book to take in over the course of a day and evening.)

    What King should do is annotate all the college years stuff. Then stuff it all in a drawer with instructions to be appended to a collection of it published in the future. Ditto for his Entertainment Weekly and any/all other currently-uncollected non-fiction. But I can totally get not wanting to shine too bright a light on the early stuff, but for the sake of posterity. Plus, if he adds apologies/ annotations, that way he can at least frame it the way he wants to.

    I really need to pick up SK: A to Z.

    1. How DARE you choose to read an acknowledged classic instead of a dashed-off piece of tomfoolery?!?

      I like your idea of King annotating all of his early-years stuff. I also can see how that would be roughly the last thing he'd be interested in actually doing. But the fact is, he's one of the most important literary figures of his time, and that means that any and all such ephemera becomes notable and of interest. I know he himself is uncomfortable with that idea, and maybe even aggravated by it -- I mean, he wrote a novel (Lisey's Story) that makes obsessive scholarly types into villains -- but like it or not, that's how it is.

      All I know is, the last thing that ought to happen to "Slade" is for it to be published in a regular collection, alongside something like, oh, "The Crate." What a silly idea. That's a chocolate-and-bologna sandwich, is what that is.

  2. I think Slade is what might be called a specimen piece. It's interesting more the seeds of later and latent ideas more than for what those ideas later became. Specifically, the big thing Slade has going for it is it's ties to the Dark Tower, as you pointed out above.

    Bev Vincent traces the start of the Gunslinger to 1966, King published Slade in 70, although it's not certain whether or not the story is older than either date and was just sitting around in a trunk somewhere gathering dust until King briefly dug it out. It seems doubtful, so it's more safe assume that King was still immersed in the Tower story at the time and dashed off what might be thought of as a sort of parody of it.

    One element of Slade that does seem to have managed to find it's way into the final Tower book is the brief mention of political figures, when Roland and Susannah are marking their way towards the Crimson King's palace and greeted with campaign flyers and posters for Nixon, LBJ and JFK. However here it's less in the way of parody and more a kind brief moment of nostalgia, as if perhaps King actually sort of missed those days now (who wouldn't want to go back to those times, after all?!).

    As to whether or not to keep Slade on the short stories list, I'd place it on a juvenilia section made just for it, and, again, label it as a specimen piece. I'll also say agree about John Wayne, adding only that you have to add John Ford to that list (I know people gave Ford an equal trouncing along with Wayne during the Sixties, but the truth is Ford had more depth than people give him credit for).


    1. Based solely on "The Searchers," John Ford is one of the all-time great American directors, as far as I'm concerned. And there was a heck of a lot more to him than that one movie, so for my money, anyone who dismisses him based on his politics or whatever is missing the boat. Big-time.

      I like your idea about there being a list for juvenilia, and putting "Slade" there. Ultimately, I think I'm inclined to keep it on the list of primary short stories. The reason is simple: it WAS published, and in a professional publication.

      Good call on mentioning those political "cameos" in DT7. I'd forgotten about that!

  3. The story was "published" so I think it should be represented in lists of works.
    I just watched the SK interview by U of Maine, Hans Ake posted it the other day and that story about him writing in college is told by "Dave" in the piece around 18 minutes.
    It could be just a fun little story they made up or could be real. Cool either way.

    1. That's right! I'd watched that interview months ago when I found it on YouTube, and I remember him saying that now that you mention it. I'll edit my post to reflect that that is where the quote originated.

      Thanks, Mike!

  4. Replies
    1. Why in a fire, specifically? Most victims of fire-related deaths die of the smoke moreso than from the fire itself, so it's not as painful as you might be assuming it would be.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Biff Thorson writes in with the following message:

    "die in a fire"

    Now, what do we make of this? Which of the following scenarios seems most likely to you:

    (1) Biff has just discovered the fine art of "trolling," and is hitting up lots of blogs and leaving such messages.

    (2) Biff is a Republican who did not get any farther than the title of this post, and assmues that the post is some sort of anti-conservative invective (probably written by a gay communist abortionist).

    (3) Biff is a big fan of the short story "Slade," which he feels got lumped here unnecessarily.

    (4) Biff genuinely wants me to die in a fire.

    I'd be charmed by any of those, to tell you the truth. If it's the first -- which seems likely -- then odds are good that Biff thinks he's the first person in the world to discover the thrill that is leaving unreasonably negative comments on someone's blog. He probably feels as if he has had some sort of major personal breakthrough, and possibly even a major cultural breakthrough. He does not know he is following in the footsteps of roughly 17,948,632 other dipshits, all of whom came to the same sad epiphany at some point in their squalid little lives.

    If it's the second, then I'd be none too surprised. Democrats are just as prone to uninformed overreaction as Republicans, but Republicans tend to be singularly humorless, and in my experience they also tend to avoid capitalization and punctuation whenever possible. Can't be slowed down by proper sentence structure; that'd be letting the terrorist win. Anyways, more time for "Duck Dynasty" episodes that way.

    If it's the third option, I'd just be happy for there to actually be a "Slade" fan in the world. Not because the world deserves for that lousy story to have fans, but because it would amuse me to imagine what the life of a rabid "Slade" fan must be like. Does Biff have a Google Alert set to inform him any time somebody mentions the story? In this scenario, he certainly does.

    If it's the fourth and final option, then I guess that's kind of cool, too, in a weird way.