Cowboys And Killing And Katniss Oh My
March 25, 2012 § 3 Comments
Internet is coming next week, so very soon I’ll be back to normal check-ins and more regular posting. Speaking of regular…
Week 12: The Regulators, Stephen King
The thumbnail sketch of this book is a small Ohio town comes under attack by a mystical force they don’t understand, while an autistic boy wrestles with his mental demons. I really, really like Stephen King. He’s not my favorite writer (if I had to, it would be some unholy mix of Gaiman, Martin, Ecksteins, Howard, and a couple more), but his work is consistently strong and always exceptionally planned. That said, I wish I hadn’t read Under the Dome as recently as I did, because they are quite similar in tone. They aren’t the same book, not even close, but the main theme of “small town is under assault from a mystical force they don’t understand” is the same. Sometimes, reading King’s work makes you think that there’s an entire dimension of Hell that exists only in small-town America.
In any case, this is the perfect time for me to talk about death again. I said before I wanted to explore it more, and, having also seen The Hunger Games (which I will review, as it’s a movie, when I have Internet), I’ve got two more stories to consider. As a quick recap, I pointed out two problems with death in books: one is that the writer who makes an interesting character has to consider how the audience will react to losing a favored character, and the second is that it can give a sense of invulnerability to characters that are well-liked and interesting. The writer has to walk a fine line between killing too quickly and easily and taking time to develop characters, which then can mean the audience gets attached and doesn’t want to see those characters die.
King does a wonderful job of squaring that circle in Regulators. I complained that in Under the Dome he too often wasted time following characters who didn’t matter just to make the world seem more fleshed out. It didn’t work there because we had a designated protagonist from the very beginning, but also because it really did waste a tonne of time. He does the same thing in Regulators which at first I thought was annoying, but then the whole thing goes crazy and bitches start getting whacked. Suddenly, there’s no designated protagonist and anyone can die or be crucial to the plot resolution. It’s very effective…in a horror story. I would probably have been frustrated if it wasn’t horror but it worked here and well. Now that it’s been a few weeks, I think I can say Under the Dome isn’t a horror story, or at least a horror story in the same vein.
One thing, however, that I did not like about the Regulators is that is sometimes gave the reader too much information, much more than we need. King always does this and it annoys me to no end. First, he will directly call out a character’s death before it happens. And he’s completely blatant about it. There’s no subtlety! He points to a character and says something like “that was the last drink he would have alive”. Disregarding the fact that most people don’t usually drink after they’re dead, what the hell. I want to experience what happens to a character and if something sudden and shocking is what happens, then I want to be shocked. If I wanted everything to be spoon-fed to me, I’ll put on my bib, throw my brain out the window, and probably not read at all.
I’m overreacting a bit, because he doesn’t do it all the time, but when he does I have to resist the urge to take a sharpie to the page. But speaking of sharpie on the page, I’m still working here. So King handles the problem of killing important characters by making everyone potentially important, and the audience responds by not getting too attached because they know that anyone can die. It’s a pretty elegant solution, albeit one that would only work for a horror story. If it’s not, incidences of sudden violent death usually decline, and a the whole dynamic around death changes.
But why did I bring up the Hunger Games movie? Because I want to talk about gore!
One thing that both of these did really well was their depictions of violence. In both, people get shot, blown up, mashed, slashed, bashed, and the results are, well, pretty much what you expect to happen. In the Hunger Games, they had a particular problem: this movie is marketed to younger kids (90% of which are girls), and the characters in the movie are younger kids. How are you going to show kids, some of who are as young as 12, messily dying on the screen? To the director’s credit, they did. Sure, they used careful editing and applied their blood following the “less is more” rule, but you still show it. It was powerful, and I approve of their decision.
King does not follow the “less is more” rule.
I love being a writer because we are incredibly lucky when it comes to what we can “show”. If my story has, say, a ten year-old getting horribly murdered, I can describe how every square inch of skin is flayed off with an electrical cord in (dear God I hope not) loving detail. I was watching It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and could not ignore the giant “MA” that appeared in the top right of the screen. It’s quite unfair, really. I do agree that visual imagery isn’t the same as written material, but it’s still a bit of a bummer that certain media gets censored while others doesn’t. That said, there’s no warning on The Regulators, and if there ever was I’d be the first to riot. If I want to put in my gallons of blood and sex, then I will, and there’s nothing anyone can say.
However, sometimes the “less is more” rule does apply in writing. There’s one scene where a character is checking if another person is dead, and King carefully details what happens when face meets shotgun pellets at several thousand meters per second.
It’s gruesome, and by that I mean it’s full of grue. Grue, yes, but I want something more than grue in my depictions of death. Take the Hunger Games again: you really feel it when someone gets whacked. The billion point one surround sound helps, but the power of the image matters. For a brilliant example of a counter point, there’s one later in Regulators. A character is exploded and King describes what happens in a line so perfect that I need to quote it:
“A split-second later, something that could be a bucket of dark silty water but isn’t hits the front of the [spoilers] house.”
I’ve never participated in a gladiatorial fight to the death, but I know exactly what a bucket of water hitting a house sounds like and that connection had power. “Less is more” isn’t always the best way to go, but sometimes, oh sometimes it just works.