Monday, February 1, 2016

A Review of the 2015 Edition of George Beahm's "The Stephen King Companion"

I had the good luck recently to win a copy of George Beahm's The Stephen King Companion from the author himself, as part of a contest hosted by Lilja's Library.  Beahm appeared with Hans and Lou on the podcast, and if you haven't heard that episode, you should go give it a listen.
  
Beahm's books about King and his work played a massive role in helping to develop my King fandom; I've written about that several times, so apologies if I repeat myself a bit, but it can't be overstated how big a deal a book like the ones Beahm wrote was to a budding young fan in the pre-Internet days.  Remember, kids, you used to have your work cut out for you before Google and Wikipedia: if you wanted to know something, you might actually have to work for it.  So if you'd just gotten into Stephen King and wanted to know more about him and his work, you were sort of dependent on what was close at hand.  A visit to a library might help; fannish magazines like Starlog and Fangoria and Cinefantastique might help; a friendly bookstore clerk might help.  Emphasis, in all cases, on "might."

Finding a treasure like George Beahm's The Stephen King Companion was almost too good to be true.  And yet, there it was!  It was like Beahm had read my mind, agreed with the justness of my quest for knowledge, and decided to help me out.  He wasn't the only writer doing work of that kind, of course; but he was the one whose work helped me the most at that time, and I'm forever grateful for that.

So needless to say, winning an autographed copy of his new book was a thrill for me, and having him answer a question from me on the podcast was, too.
  
  
  
  
This 2015 update of The Stephen King Companion is the book's third edition, and if any of you who are on the fence about getting it are on that fence because you've got one of the previous editions, let me assure you that this is a must-buy.  It's nearly six hundred pages long, has copious photos, a large number of Glenn Chadbourne illustrations, and covers twenty years plus of writing from King that didn't exist when the book's second edition was issued.  And that's just for starters.
  
Before we move on, let me take a moment to be an ungracious winner by crowing over two bonuses Beahm included when he sent me the book:
  
  
  
  
This is a print of a King photo that was secured into place above the personalized Beahm autograph on the first page.  How cool is that?
  
And then there's this:
  
  
  
  
That's a scan of the 8.5x11 print of Glenn Chadbourne art that came with my copy of the book.  Beahm had mentioned on the podcast that he was going to include some bonuses like that when he shipped the winners their books, but I'd forgotten he'd said it; so these were both very nice surprises.

Now, let's get to the content!
  
*****

My initial plan was to go through the entire book very slowly, and offer commentary on each section.  However, I quickly realized that this was untenable; there are so many sections that if I had followed that plan, I'd probably have ended up writing a longer book than the one I was ostensibly reviewing.  Clearly, that would be madness.
  
So instead, I'll offer up the paragraphs I wrote while still under the delusion that that approach was the best; and then, we'll move on to a more cursory examination of what the book holds for us.
  
"A Note to the Reader" -- Beahm here lays out some of his approach to the book you are about to read.  "My approach to the book is clearly pop culture, not academic," he says; "in other words, a college professor, I ain't."  I'm of the opinion that an academic and professorial approach to King's work would be both permissible and worthy, but all things considered, I prefer Beahm's approach.  I got an English degree, and I soured on the academic approach at some point halfway through my collegiate career, after which point I began cultivating a more informal and conversational writing voice in my paper-writing efforts.  It never seemed to hurt my grades, and it also kept me enaged with the material.  It wasn't always appropriate, and I used the style judiciously; but it worked for me, and I suspect that reading the books of George Beahm and Stephen J, Spignesi, among others, was an influence upon that decision.
  
"Because King's early years in Durham and in college are critical to understanding him and his work, I've devoted considerable space to both, to lay the necessary groundwork for the discussions of the books that follow," writes Beahm.  "Consider both skeleton keys to unlocking King's fiction."  I'm not sure I entirely agree with this last sentence, because I'd argue that King's fiction does a good job of speaking for itself, especially if you read it consistently.  However, there's no doubt whatsoever that an understanding of King's work can be expanded and aided greatly by an understanding of King's life.
  
It occurs to me that books like The Stephen King Companion will be -- and already have been -- a crucial step in the process of mythologizing King's life.  One of these days, we're not going to have King anymore; at that point, we will have the memory of King, and not too long after that, we will have only the myth and legend of King.  (I say "we" in the sense of our culture; I won't be around by the time King has become fully mythologized.  Most of you won't, either.  Happy thoughts, eh?)

There's nothing morbid about that, nor do I think it's a rude thing to consider; it's simply a fact.  Beahm is right there on the frontlines, helping to set those myths down and helping to steer the direction King fandom will take for decades and centuries to come.
  
"The Learn'd Astronomer (by Stephen J. Spignesi)" -- In this introduction, Spignesi asks the question "Is writing nature or nurture?"  He goes on to cite talks he's given about King publicly in which he reads an excerpt from a Joe Hill story and asks the crowd if the excerpt was written by King.  Apparently, they mostly say that it was, and as a Joe Hill fan as well as a Stephen King fan, I don't find that hard to believe at all.  His conclusion based on that (and also on the fact that King's union with his wife, fellow writer Tabitha Spruce King, resulted in novelist Owen King and essayist Naomi King) is that writing talent is nature; but that without it being nurtured, it's not worth much.  King has certainly nurtured his.
  
Spignesi later compares books like Beahm's to special features on DVDs; such things are consumed because fans "want insights, explications, details, discussions, and other info they don't possess."  I think this is unquestionably true.  So what do people like Beahm and Spignesi (and amateur bloggers like yours truly) want?  A version of the same thing, I'd imagine.
  
"Will King's work survive?" asks Spignesi.  He feels that the best of it certainly will, and cites The Beatles as an example of something old remaining new; he has eighteen-year-old students "who are Beatles authorities."  
  
I'd add that The Beatles have had remarkably good marketing through the years; their music remains sublime, and always will, but their ability to feel relevant in the here and now is a product of advertising convincing people that it is so.  King's ability to remain relevant in the here and now is already being tested, and is mostly receiving a passing grade; if nothing else, the movies are serving as good marketing for his work.  Films like The Shining, Carrie, Cujo, It, The Dead Zone, Misery, etc., are good advertisement for King, even if they don't always adequately reflect the books.  They need not; all they need do is point potential readers in the right direction.
  
"Introduction: The Golden Years (by George Beahm)" -- Beahm begins by briefly pondering the amount of time left in King's career.  He quotes King as saying in 2009 that he "might have ten productive years left, twenty if I'm lucky and don't get hit by any more minivans."  Beahm expounds a bit upon the idea that none of us know what's in store for us, and specifies that "time is an irreplaceable resource."  All we can do (he says, quoting Gandalf from The Fellowship of the Ring) is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.  Beahm hopes that King's optimistic appraisal of his remaining time comes to pass, but recognizes that a time may come when King writes "The End" and brings his stellar writing career to a close.
  
I found myself thinking about that while reading -- and while writing about -- The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.  If you read between the lines of that book's stories, I think you quickly find that such concerns are on King's mind.  Luckily, he seems to be invested in the idea of writing about those concerns; and so far, he's done so compellingly.  In reading that book, I don't get any sense of a writer whose work is winding down; I get the sense of a man whose work is as vital as it has ever been, and whose career still has a long time to run.  I mean, sure, there could be something horrible happen.  But that could just as easily happen to anyone; there's no accounting for it, and I don't believe that King is letting worries of that sort worry him.  The work is simply too good; I've got no doubt that King is here for quite some time to come.
  
"From the put-upon, victimized Carrie White (Carrie, 1974) to a fallen-away minister named Charles Jacobs (Revival, 2014), we see an endless parade of the good and the bad reflected in the mirror King holds up to the world -- and in the end, we see, with startling clarity, ourselves."  Thus Beahm concludes his introduction.  I've never pondered the question before: what King character do I most identify with?  There's a topic for some future blog post.
  
"Family Roots" -- This section is mostly devoted to Donald King (who, we learn, had initially been named Donald Pollock), the father who abandoned young Stephen when he was merely two years of age.  Much of the information in this section is gleaned from the Stephen King episode of the Henry Louis Gates Jr. PBS series Finding Your Roots.  All King fans are encouraged to seek this episode out, but fans interested in King's biography will find it to be essential.


Donald King as presented in Finding Your Roots

  
Beahm later quotes a passage from Danse Macabre in which King relates finding a box of his father's paperback books in the attic.  Among the books was the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who, by way of King's father, "opened the way for me."  I caught a little bit of shit for devoting so much of 2015 to an exploration of Lovecraft's work; considering his importance to King's development, it seems entirely warranted, I'd say.
  
Beahm also mentions that Donald King had written a few stories, but had had none of them published.  He speculates that the elder King might have found some success if he had stuck to it, but quotes King's mother (by way of King himself) by grousing that Donald had no skills in the stick-to-it arena.
  
The same claim certainly cannot be lobbed at his son.  Stephen King has shown a remarkable degree to stick-to-itiveness, both professionally and personally.  In this regard, he is much more his mother's son than his father's, and his fans thank their lucky stars for that fact.
  
"Durham, Maine" -- After a discussion of the vagabond lifestyle of young Stephen King (who lived in a variety of towns during the times in which his mother struggled to make ends meet), Beahm engages in some discussion of Dr. Fredric Wertham, who was well-know during the fifties for his public crusade against comic books.  Beahm includes a sample quotation from Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham's book-length study of the effect comics had on juvenile delinquency: "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry."  What was this guy a doctor in, assholeology?

"If comics were a seduction," writes Beahm, "then Stephen King was willingly seduced . . . and so were millions of other kids who found pop culture theirs to embrace."

I'll give you a cool bit of info that Beahm doesn't: King's oldest son, Joe, became a writer; and under the name Joe Hill, he is well-known for his work, including the long-running comic-book series Locke & Key.  A special edition printing of issue #1 included a bonus story in the back of the book: "Freddie Wertham Goes to Hell," it's called, which perhaps gives you an indication of where the King family comes down on the issue of comics corrupting kids, then or now.

Beahm segues from the discussion of Wertham into a discussion of the Classics Illustrated line of books, and of how Nellie Ruth King used these as material to read to her son Steve.  Eventually, this led to King to begin writing imitations of comics such as Combat Casey, and later to create stories entirely his own.

The rest is history, and Beahm gives us an overview of it here, including telling the tale of "The Killer," a one-page story that King submitted to Famous Monsters of Filmland during the early sixties.  Editor Forrest J. Ackerman rejected it, but Ackerman was prone to hanging onto things, and stumbled across a copy of the manuscript some twenty years later.  He published the story in 1994 and sent King a check for $25 plus an invitation to submit more stories in the future!

" "Three Durham Lads Publishing Bright Hometown Newspaper" by Don Hansen" -- This brief section reprints a short article Hansen wrote for the Brunswick Record on April 23, 1959.  In it, he reports on Dave's Rag, an amateur newspaper published by Dave King, Stephen King, and Donald Flaws.  Hansen reports on the boys' endeavors in a wry, but straightforward, fashion.  He includes several quotations from an issue of the paper, all of which are gold, such as this one:

On Feb. 25, Donald and Dave went to the basketball tournament in Lewiston.  Brunswick kept up the pace in the first half, but in the second their best player broke his glasses.  He cannot shoot without them.  The final score was 59-50

I could read stuff like that all day.  One suspects the author didn't intend for me to be laughing, but I don't see the harm.

Hansen's article also reports on an ad which appears in one issue.  It promises a forthcoming story from Stephen King: "Land of 1,000,000 Years Ago."

"A Special Occasion: Chris Chesley's Friendship with Stephen King" -- Chris Chesley is a name that few King fans will ever have heard, but it's an important one.  Chesley was one of King's best childhood friends, and the two collaborated on an amateur anthology of stories, People, Places and Things Vol. 1.  Later, Chesley lived with Stephen and Tabitha while he was in college, and was present for at least one family milestone: the news of Carrie being accepted for publication.

This section consists of a 1990 interview Beahm conducted with Chesley.  It runs about ten pages, and is terrific.

I was especially intrigued by this bit (in response to Beahm asking what King's grammar school teachers thought of him as a writer):

I don't know if they ever saw that he was going to be a writer, but they certainly knew that he had a talent for writing.  We could all see that.
     In the last three years of grammar school, in the seventh or eighth grade, he wrote what was his first novel-type story, twenty pages long, in which he used real kids -- he used us -- in which we had taken over the grammar school.  Because of things like that, Steve was lionized.
     He could take real people and set them into a novelistic setting in which we were heroes who died fighting the National Guard.  And the people he liked best died last.  We all wondered when we were going to "die."

It's hard for me not to think of Rage in this context and see this National Guard story as a sort of pre-echo of that later work.  School is taken over again, and fatalities occur.  King seems to have perhaps held onto the core of the concept, but gone in a more serious route with it.

" "Stephen King at the University of Maine: A Writer in the Making" by Sanford Phippen" -- Written in the fall of 1989, this essay by Phippen (a Maine writer who graduated from the University of Maine about half a decade before King did) details a sort of history of what is known about King's college years.  If you've got a biographical interest in King, you will be very well-served by Phippen here.

"Burton Hatlen: An Interview" -- This 1988 interview with Hatlen shines a light on a man who was King's writing professor in college.  King has also referred to him as both a mentor and a father figure, which means that any biographical consideration of King that even aspires to worthiness will have to include Hatlen, from now until the end of time.

" "A Good Angel": Cavalier Editor Nye Willden" -- The role of editors in a writer's career often gets ignored altogether, and in fact, it's only through reading about the career of Stephen King that I have any understanding at all of how important that editor/author relationship must be.  This is similar to how most people don't grasp how important a producer is to a rock band.  I mean, it's one thing to be The Beatles, but it's another thing altogether to help The Beatles make Rubber Soul.

In this section, Beahm reflects a bit on the role played by Nye Willden, who might be said to be the first real editor of King's career.  He was an associate editor at the magazine Cavalier, where King made some of his first professional sales.  During the early to late seventies, King would sell something like fourteen stories to Willden and Cavalier, including the majority of the tales that comprise Night Shift, his first collection.  It's Doubleday editor Bill Thompson who bought King's first novel, Carrie, and had arguably the largest editorial impact on the author's career; but Willden was unquestionably a key figure in helping support King at the outset of his fiction-writing career.  Without Willden and Cavalier, would Carrie and all that came after have even happened?

Impossible to say, and foolish to imply that it wouldn't have.  Still, you have to wonder.  Either way, Willden is an important figure in the King biography, and it's lovely to see him getting some key recognition here.

*****
  
From here, Beahm goes on to devote a section to each of King's books, offering behind-the-scenes information, commentary (often by fellow King scholar Michael Collings), and other sidebars such as information about notable limited-edition printings of the books.  I get a little grumpy on the subject of limited editions, as longtime readers of this blog will know; but, still, it's a fact of King fandom that that subject is going to come up, and Beahm writes about it well.

There is plenty more to enjoy in this book, including:

  • interviews between Hans-Åke Lilja and: Frank Darabont; Marsha DeFilippo, King's office manager and website moderator; Stewart O'Nan; and one between Lilja and Beahm himself
  • a full-color portfolio of work by Michael Whelan
  • a considerable amount of original art by Glenn Chadbourne
  • a fun essay by Kevin Quigley about meeting King for the first time
  • a Library Journal interview with Russell Dorr, King's researcher
  • a section in which Beahm discusses the ten films he considers to be the essential King adaptations
  • a lengthy interview between King and Tony Magistrale (reprinted from the latter's book Hollywood's Stephen King)
  • and more
  
It runs about the length of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, and there's enough here to keep the King fan engaged for days.  Is that a recommendation?
  
You bet it is.  Here's hoping we'll get a fourth edition a few years from now!

9 comments:

  1. Congrats on winning that contest! Very nice.

    Like you, this is the book that brought my King fandom into focus and amplified it. I will DEFINITELY be picking this up.

    I had absolutely no idea there was a King episode of “Finding Your Roots.” Wow!

    Kevin Quigley is in this one? That’s awesome. Maybe you’ll be in the next edition.

    Does it shed ANY light on the mystery of whatever happened between King, Kirby Macauley, and/or Bill Thompson? I suspect it’s not a dramatic story – just the business falling-out common to most people. But considering how often they come up in the early days of King’s career, their absence was so notable to me when I was making my way through the books. Of course, a lot of the anecdotes shared have to do with getting loaded with one or both of them, so maybe that’s the answer right there,

    I also kind of wish someone would interview King’s brother, who sounds like a fascinating fellow.

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    1. David King was interviewed for Stephen J. Spignesi's "The Shape Under the Sheet," and I believe that may be the only interview he has ever given. I'm guessing that's not an accident; he must want to avoid being in the public eye. I can't say as I blame him, but yeah, I'm sure he'd have many interesting things to say.

      The book sheds no light on Kirby McCauley's departure from the King story whatsoever (and in fact doesn't mention him all that much). As for Thompson, there is a good bit more. He was an editor at Doubleday, and when King left them for a different publisher, Thompson seems to have unfairly taken the blame, and got the axe. He later began his own publishing company, Everest House, which published "Danse Macabre."

      He doesn't seem to have had any further role in King's career, but they remained friends. Fun fact: Thompson later published the first novel of another budding young novelist, John Grisham.

      The King episode of "Finding Your Roots" is terrific. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hK7ZDV8iF38)

      I'd love to make an appearance in a book like this one. More importantly, I'd like to WRITE a book like this one! One of these days...

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    2. I knew about the Thompson/ Grisham connection, but I didn't realize he got the blame for King's leaving Doubleday. That seems unfair. But that's why I want to read a huge expose on it all, to know the nitty-gritty! Kirby Macauley, too.

      I'll have to track down that David King interview.

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    3. It'll be easy: check your email. ;)

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  2. All in all, a good review of what will perhaps go down as a future key King Critical Text.

    Other books that I think should be on that list are Douglas Winter's "Art of Darkness" and the works of Spignesi, Collings, and Magistrale.

    While Beahm's and Spignesi are more conversational, Collings and Magistrale are more academic in their approach. If I had to give a good reason for liking the former while still being able enjoy the latter, I'd have to blame a much older variety of critic.

    It's true when you point out that most criticism today, however serious, still has a kind of "dryasdust" quality too it. That and I get the idea that they don't put as much imagination into like they used. If that sounds odd, then all I can say is you should have seen these older critics I'm talking about. Guys like Eliot, Lovecraft, Huxley or Tolkien seem to have a way of bringing this weird, unorthodox style and conceptual framework to their critical writings. The best analogy of a literate acid trip might sound obtuse, but it's a the best I got.

    These were guys who mixed discussion of their favorite works of fiction, with a little psychology, a little sociology, and just the barest gropings after anything in the way of philosophy (note I said "gropings", going by their words, they just as much in the dark as the rest of us).

    I have to say I miss that kind of style of criticism these days.

    As for Beahm's book, on the whole, I like it. I think he's right when he says King's college days might be the key to unlocking a lot of his fiction. At the same time, Beahm subtly highlights the handicap he and most King scholars have been working under. Namely a lack of relevant biographical material with which to construct a fully rounded literary portrait.

    I don't know how that's going to go for future scholarship, but I hope something can be worked out. With every tick of the clock, valuable lifetimes of info are going down the drain.

    ChrisC

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    1. That's true. I'd love to think there had been some sort of biographical project going on for a while now, that simply won't bear fruit for a while to come. Winter would be my #1 candidate for such a project. His book is indeed indispensable; I'd love for him to update it.

      I like Collings and Magistrale, also. I've only read some of what they've done, but I enjoyed it.

      The sort of criticism you mention is something I'm only somewhat familiar with, but I like the sound of it. It seems the sort of thing that would appeal to me.

      I've got little to no tolerance for that "dryasdust" approach you mention. I'm sure one can learn things from it, but who wants to bother? Not me. I certainly wouldn't want my own critical pursuits to be covered in that dust. I aim for amusing myself, in the hopes that I'll also amuse anyone reading who is on something like the same wavelength I'm on. Not sure if that holds any sort of critical validity or not, but hopefully it's got at least a bit.

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    2. Speaking of the Kings and comic books, Joe Hill has also released a graphic novel version of his short story "The Cape":

      http://www.idwpublishing.com/product/joe-hills-the-cape/

      I haven't read Hill's Wertham parody yet, however taken together with "The Cape", the overall impression I get is that Hill and King have no real issues with comic books, but they're more than willing to entertain "Misery"-like thoughts about certain types of extreme fans.

      Incidentalty, Bryan,

      When's the next installment of the Watchman retrospective due?

      Just askin'.

      ChrisC

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    3. Should be up towards the end of the month - thanks for asking!

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