Sunday, November 8, 2009

The horror! The horror!

How is Stephen King like Joseph Conrad? The body of work of both authors is ostensibly positioned on the side of the oppressed yet actually shot through with racism.

In Conrad's case there is the epitome of this contradiction, Heart of Darkness. I'm no expert but I have read that Conrad was appalled by what he saw in Africa, in particular the genocidal nightmare visited on the people of the Congo by the Belgian colonizers. He positioned himself as a sort of liberal voice of conscience, but not against colonialism itself, not against Europe's right to exploit the natural riches and human labor of the African nations. It's clear in the pages of the novel that, upsetting as all that blood and suffering might have been to him, he never regarded those shedding the blood as actual people, fully human people equal to his peers in Poland, Belgium or England. Chinua Achebe deconstructed all this in his famous 1988 essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'"
... Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.

... And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.
Now to Stephen King. Granted that, unlike Conrad, who still has slews of defenders despite Achebe's to my mind definitive takedown, King is not generally regarded as meriting a place in the literary pantheon. Oh, wait a minute--bizarrely, he kind of is: in 2003 he was awarded the National Book Foundation's "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters." Anyway, whether he's seen as a shlockmeister or a fine artist, the guy writes a lot of books, and they all sell a lot of copies, they all get read. He's got a new one out, featured on the front page of today's New York Times Book Review. If you read the review (if, that is, you're able to go on after the incredibly clueless, ass-backward misread of the 1960s in the first paragraph), you'll find that this new novel is quite political, King's liberal fictive commentary on some of what's going on in this country now. So I immediately wondered: hey, are there any magical Black people?

For if anything defines King's oeuvre, it's that: the otherness of African Americans. I've read quite a few of his books--more on that in a minute--and I don't recall a single Black character that is a fully fledged and also a fully normal human being. From The Stand to The Shining to Bag of Bones to The Green Mile and on and on, they appear time and again, Black ghosts, Black wise women, Black wise men, Black genies, Black angels. Never, at least in the books I read till I stopped reading his books, a Black person who is simply and wholly that, a person. Like Conrad, it seems, King has seen the horrors to which Black people, in his case African Americans, have been subjected, and he's keen to express it, to show that he knows of it, and he does so the only way he seems to know how. Which is by writing them as the Other.

I admit I did not realize this until after having read several of King's books. I enjoyed them as spooky, engrossing escapes, and the writing is fast and fluid so that you do escape into the story. I was always turned off by his many annoying tics, like the constant product placement and the hokey sayings he makes up for his characters to constantly mouth, but the fast-paced and genuinely scary plots sucked me in enough that I overlooked them. Then, however, I started getting turned off by the slick, shallow hollowness of the liberal ethic at the core of most of his stories. And I woke up to his really appalling portrayal of Black characters. And then I read about his shrunken head.

In some interview a decade or more ago (I just searched and couldn't find it, but I swear I did read it), King was quoted as "revealing" the inspiration for much of his fiction. How he works up a head of horror steam, basically--how he gets his head into that spooky scary place where his stories reveal themselves to him. Here's how, he said. He opens his desk drawer and takes out the shrunken head he keeps there. It is, he said, the head of a Black slave boy from the early 19th century. He couldn't reveal where he got it and he couldn't prove it was real, he said, but he thought it was. A shrunken head of an enslaved Black teenager from some 1800s plantation. This, said King, this is the real horror. Slavery. What was done to this lad and so many others. I keep this here to remind myself that real life is full of horrors, and when I take it out and look at it, or even when I don't since I'm always aware that it's there in the drawer, I am filled with rage and terror and my stories come to me.

That's all paraphrase, but it's basically true to what I read. I've never read another word by Stephen King. Do I need to spell out why? The fact that he keeps such an artifact, that he can and wants to and does, is in itself revolting. The fact that he uses it for inspiration is even more repulsive. That he holds it up as proof of his sensitivity when in fact it proves the opposite; far from engaging in any deep consideration of the system of chattel slavery in the United States, King rather exploits it in the form of what amounts to a talisman, exploits all that horror and pain in the service of his bestsellerdom.