Friday, September 19, 2008

Lord of Atlantis

The thought should have comforted Bobby but it didn't. He found himself thinking of what William Golding had said, that the boys on the island were rescued by the crew of a battle-cruiser and good for them...but who would rescue the crew? ...[T]he words still haunted Bobby. What if there were no grownups? Suppose the whole idea of grownups was an illusion? What if their money was really just playground marbles, their business deals no more than baseball-card trades, their wars only games of guns in the park? What if they were all still snotty-nosed kids inside their suits and dresses? Christ that couldn't be, could it? It was too horrible to think about. -Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King, p. 153

Hearts in Atlantis may be one of the best books I've ever read, and perhaps the reason why may make me more than a bit of a cynic. Stephen King has written an awful lot of books, and they vary greatly in subject, tone and even genre. Generally, I think of him as a very good writer, someone who has the ability to show us the serious and dark side of things, often using metaphors of the supernatural. A lot of people see his work as being schlocky, but to me, that's part of the magic of it: Yes, he's schlocky, but there's still something powerful in what he has to say that both his casual fans and dismissive detractors will miss.

I remember as a high school freshman writing my first real essay on a book in response to The Shining. What I mean by "real essay on a book" is that this was something that went beyond elementary-school "book reports" in which you essentially wrote up a page synopsis of what happened on the surface of the plot of the book you had just read. You know, this would be the sort of thing like, "The Shining is a book about a writer who spends the winter in a haunted hotel and tries to kill his family." Throw in some descriptions of the main characters and evaluations such as, "I thought this book was awfully spooky, but good," to pad it out to 250 words and you'll pass seventh-grade English. I remember thinking with great satisfaction as I produced that essay that this was something much better than just a grouping of words set on paper to keep me from flunking out, just as The Shining was far more than a haunted house story.

Maybe it was growing up with an alcoholic stepfather that made me see the story the way I did. (I suppose I should insert the disclaimer that I'm not playing the victim card here: I'm sure I had it much better than many children with alcoholic parents; my stepfather was a drunk, but not abusive.) I argued that The Shining was an allegory for the way that alcohol abuse can transform a person into something ugly that's not really who they should be, and thus destroy their family. Sure, the fictional Overlook Hotel was a place with a dark history and seemingly crowded with evil spirits, but it seemed clear to me that the "spirits" that were of the most concern were the ones that had caused the protagonist to lose control and break his three-year-old son's arm long before he ever even heard of the Overlook, and the ghost of that shame haunted his life in a far more terrifying way than any supernatural specter could ever manage.

The Shining was not a book I had been assigned to read, and I doubt it's a book that is often assigned to students as required reading, although it's pretty good. I read somewhere recently (I'm afraid I don't recall where it was) that there is usually nothing that will squash interest in a book for a reader more quickly than telling them they have to read it, and I think there's definitely truth to it. Had various middle and high school reading lists been different, I no doubt would have liked William Shakespeare considerably more and Stephen King considerably less, but there was one book that I was assigned to read in high school that instilled an excitement in me that even requirement to read could not dull. That book was Golding's Lord of the Flies, a book that King featured prominently in both Hearts in Atlantis and Cujo.

What I particularly remember about it was the discussions that took place in the class in which we were assigned Lord of the Flies. It seemed that few of my classmates found the story believable and saw the world and its people with far more of a rosy tint than I could allow myself. Surely, if children in real life were to act like the children in the book, it must be because they were somehow taught to act so. Violence and hatred don't come naturally, and most of us are much better than that, right? I didn't know why it was they thought so, but life had taught me otherwise. In first grade, waiting for the bus to school, a young man had been hit by a car, and fellow elementary school students had crowded the curbside shouting, "Cool, look at all the blood!" as we waited for an ambulance to arrive. In second grade, I'd seen classmates break into fistfights over someone cutting in line for the drinking fountain when another drinking fountain not four feet away had no line at all. In fourth grade, a playground bully realized he couldn't get at me in front of the teacher monitoring the playground at lunch, so he found out what route I used to walk home and met me there with five of his friends to help hold me down and beat me up. I remember a summer in junior high in which a tent mate at my summer camp thought that retaliating against someone who'd dumped a bucket of cold water on him by dumping a bucket of scalding-hot water on them was a neat idea. Besides all these overt physical acts of violence, there was the fact that there was hardly a single child in the world I knew that had not at some point in time engaged in some form of character assassination against a schoolmate.

Nobody has to teach children to be selfish, that's just natural and (God help us) even logical. It seems a fact of life that we have to be selfish in order to survive, at least to some degree. Yet in addition to that, nobody seems to need to teach us how to be petty, cruel and backbiting either. Every child wants to be well-liked, but for some reason I cannot fathom (although surely I've not been immune) most children seem to want to decrease the popularity, esteem and success of others. Our parents don't tell us to go to kindergarten and call some other kid a "poo-poo head"; we just do it...because. The school bully who shakes down smaller kids for their lunch money probably isn't hard up for cash; he just enjoys causing fear and humiliation and the ensuing sense of power it gives him. I have been made to understand, both from women who have had to live with it and from Hollywood, that girls engage in a subtle sort of social bullying that's far worse than anything we boys can imagine or even understand, and it seems to come as naturally and regularly as their monthly cycle.

That's what's really so engaging and chilling about Lord of the Flies: the fact that it's somehow more than a mere work of fiction. We live it. As children, we seem to be constantly a moment away from breaking down into complete anarchy and savagery. It's a cliché that has some great truth to it: that it only takes a minute for the teacher to step out of the classroom for the spitballs to come out. Sometimes, it's more than spitballs. Sometimes, it doesn't matter if the teacher has left the classroom. Years before the infamous tragedy at Columbine high school, King wrote a story called "Rage", in which a high school student walks into a classroom with a gun and shoots the teacher. What ensues in the story is not a massacre, but an afternoon in which this student, who has crossed over a line that most of us hopefully would never cross, shows how close to crossing over lines the others in the class have come themselves. Once again, King shows a side of horror that's not rooted in the supernatural at all, this time in a more straightforward fashion, allegories left by the wayside. In doing so he gives a story that's chilling not only in itself, but in the fact that recent years have shown us that so very dark tale is far lighter fare than the facts that the nightly news will bring. Many of us would rather have the fantasy, because the good guys so often win in the end.

It's something that we tend to do to lighten the weight of evil. Both in fiction and in real life, we look to the supernatural to explain away evil. In Cujo (oddly enough, one of my least-favorite King novels), the story revolves around a rabid dog that directly and indirectly causes the deaths of many people in a town that a few years before had been victimized by a serial killer. More than once, characters from the book seem to be of the opinion that somehow the spirit of this serial killer is haunting the town, maybe even possessing the rabid dog in order to carry on the killing spree even in death. It's a work of fiction, but in real life, rational people don't think of serial killers that way, do they? It would be easier, though. Rather than think that a fellow human being would be capable of certain atrocities, there's almost a comfort in imagining that a demonic force drove him to kill, and that same force lingered around so we could place upon it the blame for the tragic accident of a rabid dog left to run free and kill some more.

Just a few years after my class read Lord of the Flies, in that same small rural high school where my classmates couldn't believe in the imagined atrocities of children left to their own devices, a student decided that breaking up with his girlfriend was too much trouble, and it would be easier to kill her and dump the body in a ravine. The story briefly made national news as it was announced his lawyer would actually plead before the court that the boy was possessed by Satan. Heck, I'm a Christian and actually believe that Satan is a real being, and yet I call this bullshit. I don't know how the case turned out, nor do I want to, but I do know this: we as human beings don't like to think that one of us is capable of killing simply to get out of a date, but from what I have seen, history shows that human beings are willing to kill just because we can.

Lord of the Flies is probably not a book that often gets pigeonholed into a specific genre, being left in that wide-open field of 'fiction' (or the more pretentious 'literature'), but really, it's 'horror' through and through. We've been conditioned by our culture to think of 'horror' as a genre to be a sort of sub-genre of 'sci-fi/fantasy', in which terrible, bloody things happen at the hand of fantastic subhuman or superhuman beings, but we forget that the true horror of life is that terrible things happen constantly in the natural world by the will of perfectly natural humans. Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden aren't "monsters", but regular people like you and me who used their influence over others to encourage acts of great evil. The boys on that island may be products of fiction, but their actions are tame compared to those of their non-fictional contemporaries in many parts of the world.

Bobby Garfield, the young protagonist of the first story in Hearts in Atlantis, comes into contact with some fearsome evil beings sprung from a fictional world in Stephen King's head: the "low men in yellow coats." (They're not much like the toned-down characters in the movie with Anthony Hopkins, for those who have seen it but not read the book.) Yet these strange characters–who we rational readers realize will never cross paths with us in the real world–are not nearly so frightening as a variety of other characters that he comes across whom he thinks of as also being "low men", but not at all in a supernatural sense. At a pivotal point in his story, his girlfriend is accosted by three older boys, who beat her with a baseball bat. (Another minor recurring theme of King's work is the use of mundane sports equipment for violent acts: In the movie version of The Shining, the father attacks his family with an ax, but in the novel, it was a mallet from a game like croquet. In 'Salem's Lot, the protagonist stakes the heart of a vampire with a broken baseball bat. Coincidentally, the real-life murder in my home town involved a baseball bat as well.) The story being set in 1960, many of the boys in the story grow up and are sent to fight in Vietnam where they, as adults, will perform acts perhaps far more gruesome than beating up an eleven-year-old girl with a baseball bat, and this time, they'll do it with the support of their government.

The characters in this book struggle with the issues of senseless violence in different ways: trying to atone for it, living in denial of it, and in several cases even responding in kind. These are very human reactions, ones that are often explored in the horror genre but here laid bare by lack of extreme measures of the supernatural. There's something extremely frightening about schoolboys that beat up a girl with a baseball bat that bogeymen and space aliens can't seem to match, because things like the former happen every day. Anne Rice vampires philosophically contemplating the morality of taking the blood of innocents in order to satisfy their lust for blood may make for good entertainment, but governments contemplating the same to satisfy the lust for petroleum and power? We have to live with that in the real world! The phrase "man's inhumanity to man" has always seemed a strange one to me, as "inhumanity" seems to be one of the hallmarks of humanity.

I had been working on this piece of writing off and on for some time, at one point thinking it would be an appropriate piece for publishing on September 11th, a date most people today relate to the real-world reality of horror. (As it is, today, the 19th, is an appropriate anniversary as well, although even more mundane and less well-known.) There's a big part of me that is glad I waited, for a few reasons. I'm much less sentimental about anniversaries than most people, rarely seeing significance in a date just because it happens to be that same date that something else happened in the past; after all, calendars are largely arbitrary. As for arbitrariness, I remember for some time that conspiracy buffs were struggling to find meaning in why the attacks happened on September 11, but as far as I know, nobody ever forwarded a theory of substance. September 11th was really just a day like any other day before the first plane crashed, and the date may as well have been chosen by throwing a dart at a calendar. We look for higher meaning in tragedy, perhaps in the hope that if we can understand what "9/11" really means, we'll know when the next date will be. Of course, when (not if) that day comes, it will once again be just another day the morning before whatever tragedy it is occurs.

And as for the senseless violence we perpetrate in response to senseless violence? Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart made a sobering point about 9/11 and all the battles that have been waged over it. "Nineteen people flew into the towers. It seems hard for me to imagine that we could go to war enough to make the world safe enough that nineteen people wouldn’t want to do harm to us." Obviously, we can't. We won't stop violence by answering it with more violence, but we also won't stop it by ignoring it. The truth is, we simply won't stop it, period. All it takes for violence to occur is a single man with a gun, or even a kid with a baseball bat. And that is horror on a level that fiction can never reach.

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