As usual, the month is getting away from me. Last month, I missed the Dated Essay. I remembered this time, but only because of Stephen King.
I’m reading his latest collection of short stories (some will appear in next month’s recommended reading), and it got me thinking about the books (and stories) of his that I’ve enjoyed in the past. I wrote an entire editorial about one of them for F&SF 12 years ago. (12 years! Wow!)
Here’s the editorial. What’s dated? Not a lot. In fact, the last line is prescient. I still think King is one of our very best writers. But let’s see…it’s no longer possible to buy the book in pieces. (Unless you go to a used bookstore.) And of course, I’m not editing. But other than that….
By the time you read this, the frenzy will be over. The excitement has already died down as I write this editorial in September of 1996. But since I have just written a series that discusses the problems with publishing, I feel I should discuss one of its successes.
Stephen King’s The Green Mile.
I’ve always had great admiration for King. He is arguably our best storyteller, one of our best stylists (when he choses to be), and in some ways, the man who can tap into our national subconscious. Given his tremendous success at such a young age, he could have stopped writing altogether, or continued writing tried and true horror novels in the vein of Carrie or The Shining. Instead, each book has taken risks. Sometimes the risks work. Sometimes they don’t.
The Green Mile works.
As I write this, King has six books on the bestseller list, and an article in yesterday’s newspaper claims he will have eight on the list by week’s end, a record that, as the newspaper says, “no one is disputing.”
Those six books are all sections of The Green Mile.
For those of you who managed to avoid bookstores, airports, and grocery checkout lines since April, The Green Mile is a novel published in six parts. It is a well-plotted meditation on death, dying, and survival set in part in two prisons: Cold Mountain Penitentiary during the thirties, and a nursing home in 1996. The narrator, one Paul Edgecombe, is witness to magical happenings on Death Row in Cold Mountain, the place where men wait before they walk “the green mile” to the electric chair. Edgecombe, who writes of the events of the past as memoir from his room in the nursing home, has a reason for writing now. And that reason King wisely refuses to reveal until Part Six.
I suspect The Green Mile will work well as a single volume novel, but I feel sad for those of you who waited to read the book all at once. You’ve missed something. As King says in his introduction to the whole series:
…in a story which is published in installments, the writer gains an ascendancy over the reader which he or she cannot otherwise enjoy: simply put, Constant Reader, you cannot flip ahead and see how matters turn out.
You also cannot stay up all night to finish the book. That was my frustration. I picked up The Two Dead Girls, the first installment of The Green Mile, on the day it came out partly because I was intrigued, and partly because I am a big King fan. I liked the idea of the experiment, and I expected a Perils of Pauline cliff-hanger novel that would leave Our Hero on the brink of some disaster at the end of part one.
Instead I read a subtle cliff-hanger, one based on characterization and the promise of suspense to come. I found that I couldn’t shake the story during that month (which is just amazing considering how much I read), and I felt deep frustration at my inability to finish the book on my schedule. At the end of April, I was in our local bookstore on the day Part Two, The Mouse on the Mile, arrived. I read that section within two hours, and was alternately frustrated and pleased that I was enjoying the series so much.
I’ve spoken to other readers who’ve had the same experience, and we all agree that part of the joy of the series was the loss of control, the forced savoring of the novel, the willingness to read at someone else’s pace. Had The Green Mile been bad or even mediocre, the experiment would have failed. Because it was so good, it worked beyond all expectations.
The publisher, Signet, expected this series to be a gimmick, a loss leader for King’s future books. The novel sold (and continues to sell) beyond expectation. I know other novels in installments will follow: John Saul has just signed up to do one. But a serialized novel is, as King says, a precarious balancing act, a chance for critics to beat you up (or praise you) six times for the same work. It is, in my opinion, something only our best storytellers, our best stylists, can pull off with any degree of success.
My hat’s off to Stephen King. He walked the wire with flare and panache.
And gave me a most marvelous reading experience, one that I will savour for years to come.