Some neat thoughts on inspired creativity drawn from Lewis Hyde and Stephen King, and presented by Terri Windling, whose editorial and authorial contributions to modern fantasy and speculative fiction have been so very valuable:
As Hyde explained in his book, The Gift (1983):
“The task of setting free one’s gifts was a recognized labor in the ancient world. The Romans called a person’s tuletary spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon. Ancient authors tell us that Socrates, for example, had a daemon who would speak up when he was about to do something that did not accord with his true nature. It was believed that each man had his idios daemon, his personal spirit which could be cultivated and developed. . . . According to Apuleius,” he continues, “if a man cultivated his genius through such a sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living. The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with us the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For the genius has need of us. . . .
Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to daemons and muses in “The Writing Life” (2006):
“There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer’s imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It’s drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one’s study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn’t call it; that doesn’t work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it on) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.”
“On the care and feeding of daemons and muses,” October 13, 2015
N.B. I refer to the same sources in A Course in Demonic Creativity, and even include a portion of Hyde’s quoted words above as one of the book’s opening epigraphs.
There have been moments of insight in Stephen King’s work that legitimately qualify as sublime. This widely quoted passage from his foreword to Night Shift is one of them:
At night, when I go to bed I am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I’m not a child anymore but . . . I don’t like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you will encounter all manner of night creatures: vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.
King surely intended this as a witty illustration of the irrational or non-rational fears embedded in human psychology that account for our fascination with and responsiveness to supernatural horror stories. But I think it can also be taken as referring to much more. For those who are inclined toward meditation, inner work, and exploring the boundaries of the real — including, pointedly, those episodes and encounters of a Fortean or daimonic nature during which the nominally unreal becomes real, and also vice versa — I’m inclined to think those last two sentences could serve as a superb Zen koan.
Here’s a really nice pair of paragraphs expressing a dead-on and truly significant point, from a review by Margaret Atwood (!) of King’s new novel Doctor Sleep, his much-heralded sequel to The Shining:
King is right at the center of an American literary taproot that goes all the way down: to the Puritans and their belief in witches, to Hawthorne, to Poe, to Melville, to the Henry James of “The Turn of the Screw,” and then to later exemplars like Ray Bradbury. In the future, I predict, theses will be written on such subjects as “American Puritan Neo-Surrealism in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘The Shining,’ ” and “Melville’s Pequod and King’s Overlook Hotel as Structures That Encapsulate American History.”
Some may look skeptically at “horror” as a subliterary genre, but in fact horror is one of the most literary of all forms. Its practitioners read widely and well — King being a pre-eminent example — since horror stories are made from other horror stories: you can’t find a real-life example of the Overlook Hotel. People do “see” some of the things King’s characters see (for a companion volume, try Oliver Sacks’s “Hallucinations”), but it is one of the functions of “horror” writing to question the reality of unreality and the unreality of reality: what exactly do we mean by “see”?
There’s a nifty interview with Stephen King in last weekend’s edition of that bastion of substantive journalism, Parade magazine. It’s actually the cover feature, which knocks the usually fluff-filled magazine up a notch in my (probably immaterial) estimation.
Among the highlights are the following points of interest:
King explains why he’s not a horror writer:
Interviewer Ken Tucker: [Your new novel] Joyland has supernatural elements, but it isn’t a horror novel.
Stephen King: I’ve been typed as a horror writer, and I’ve always said to people, “I don’t care what you call me as long as the checks don’t bounce and the family gets fed.” But I never saw myself that way. I just saw myself as a novelist.
King explains the mysterious fact of inner guidance in the act of writing:
I’m a situational writer. You give me a situation, like a writer gets in a car crash, breaks his leg, is kidnapped by his number-one fan, and is kept in a cabin and forced to write a book — everything else springs from there. You really don’t have to work once you’ve had the idea. All you have to do is kind of take dictation from something inside.
King describes his uneasiness about the future of reading in a screen-dominated culture:
Tucker: Do you think that reading occupies the same importance for kids today?
King: No, absolutely not. I think it’s because they’re so screen-oriented [TVs, computers, smartphones]. They do read — girls in particular read a lot. They have a tendency to go toward the paranormal, romances, Twilight and stuff like that. And then it starts to taper off because other things take precedence, like the Kardashian sisters. I did a couple of writing seminars in Canada last year with high school kids. These were the bright kids, Ken; they all have computers, but they can’t spell. Because spell-check won’t [help] you if you don’t know “through” from “threw.” I told them, “If you can read in the 21st century, you own the world.” Because you learn to write from reading. But there are so many other byways for the consciousness to go down now; it makes me uneasy.
Note that in addition to reading the interview, you can listen to portions of King’s actual conversation with the interviewer, and also watch him posing for a Parade photo shoot, in this brief “Behind the Scenes” video:
I ask you to consider the fact that we live in a web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality. Where do we come from? Where were we before we were here? Don’t know. Where are we going? Don’t know. A lot of churches have what they assure us are the answers, but most of us have a sneaking suspicion all that might be a con-job laid down to fill the collection plates. In the meantime, we’re in a kind of compulsory dodgeball game as we free-fall from Wherever to Ain’t Got a Clue. Sometimes bombs go off and sometimes the planes land okay and sometimes the blood tests come back clean and sometimes the biopsies come back positive. Most times the bad telephone call doesn’t come in the middle of the night but sometimes it does, and either way we know we’re going to drive pedal-to-the-metal into the mystery eventually.
It’s crazy to be able to live with that and stay sane, but it’s also beautiful. I write to find out what I think, and what I found out writing The Colorado Kid was that maybe — I say just maybe — it’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition-derby world. We always want to reach for the lights in the sky, and we always want to know where the Colorado Kid (the world is full of Colorado Kids) came from. Wanting might be better than knowing. I don’t say that for sure; I only suggest it.
— Stephen King, from the afterword to The Colorado Kid (2005)
In his interesting book-length meditation, Danse Macabre (1981), Stephen King posited the following theory regarding the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror:
Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world?
The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.
Quite appropriately for somebody with a such royal name, in that passage King effectively gave us the One Theory to Rule Them All, the one idea that would become the ready response to questions about the intrinsic and perennial appeal of Horror. Countless creators and consumers of such entertainment have regurgitated King’s logic over the past three decades, to the point where it has become a convenient catchall that any Horror fan can brandish whenever his or her morbid predilections are called into question. Why Horror art? Because our souls need boot-camp training to toughen us up for when real life comes a-calling, of course!
Simple? Yes. Memorable? Certainly. Useful? Absolutely. But is it accurate?
Although I am an admirer of many of Stephen King’s works, I confess to finding his logic here deeply suspect. The underlying implication of this theory is that Horror is a healthy, even a socially responsible, pastime: no need to worry if your great-aunt Tilly furrows her brow at your movie night selection. Just inform her that the cannibal frenzy she’ll be enduring in lurid, extreme close-ups for the next ninety minutes is for her own good, because it’s steeling her nerves for tomorrow’s lineup at the DMV.
The mind reels at such an absurd imagining. So violently, in fact, that the experience of it raises a fundamental question about the theory at hand, to wit: Does Horror art in any medium truly help us cope with life? And more importantly, must it? Does it require a purpose beyond serving us a delicious tide of frisson and grue? Surely even the genre’s most sophisticated examples cannot honestly be considered life lessons. Or then again, can they? Read the rest of this entry