Our book today started life as a screenplay for a long TV movie, 1999's Storm of the Century by none other than Stephen King, and it raises several fascinating questions, the foremost being: under what conditions can a bad writer produce good work?
In the realm of pure theory, of course, there are no such circumstances - a bad writer is a bad writer because he's not a good writer, and circumstances don't enter into it one way or the other. But the blogosphere, thank gawd, has little to do with pure theory and is all about contingent reality, and the simple truth is, Storm of the Century is a good book because Stephen King wasn't always a bad writer. There are stretches in Different Seasons that any comic writer could be proud of, for instance, and Salem's Lot is a fine, if verbose, vampire novel. That kernel of talent has to be there before an author can return to it, which raises the question of circumstances again.
Clearly, the key is control. Stephen King is the most popular, best-selling author of the 20th century, and once he started to become that (around It? The Dark Half, certainly?), he slipped the surly bonds of editorial control. He might continue to talk about having editors and publishers as friends, but nobody at that stage in a popular writer's career can say in any meaningful way "this part doesn't work," and all writers absolutely need that, or they become self-indulgent, self-referential, and self-absorbed.
This happened in spades to King (a tip-off for those of you searching his books: if an author has his characters refer to him as an author of popular books, that author has Left the Path and might not ever find his way back), and the underpinnings of it were certainly true in the genesis of Storm of the Century, which King only had to pitch to ABC in the roughest outline before the network rolled over like a sleepy kitten and gave him the kind of creative latitude most screenwriters only dream of. But the resulting work is indeed hugely more controlled than the piles of blathering wet-wash King produces in book-form these days, and the reason is simple: the format imposed it.
This is a screenplay, after all, not a novel. The action is carried almost entirely by dialogue, and King has a pretty good ear for dialogue. And dialogue is necessarily spoken by characters, which drastically limits the extent to which the author can interject his own navel-gazing into the proceedings. As a result, Storm of the Century is ironically both typically Stephen King in its preoccupations and refreshingly Stephen King-free in its presentation.
The setting is familiar: Little Tall Island, a small community of intertwined local families off the coast of Maine. Toward this community two unusual phenomena are headed with ominous intensity: the eponymous storm, a gigantic snow-system that threatens to shut down the island's power and totally cut it off from the mainland for a few days at least, and a mysterious man named Andre Linoge who carries a decorative cane and seems to know every dark secret the residents of Little Tall have.
Fans of King's work will expect automatically that there are plenty of such secrets, and this is right: it seems like everybody on Little Tall - from Robbie Beals, the prickly town manager, to Mike Anderson, the valiant, overwhelmed town constable, to all the other men and women gathering close in the face of the storm - harbors some dark revelation they haven't told anyone.
Linoge knows all these secrets, and he's free with his knowledge from the start, as when he taunts Robbie Beals with a shame from his past:
You were with a whore in Boston when your mother died in Machias. Ma was in that crappy nursing home they closed down last fall, the one where they found rats in the pantry, right? She choked to death calling your name. Isn't that sweet? Other than a good slice of processed yellow cheese, there's nothing on earth like a mother's love!
Mike Anderson and his deputy find Linoge sitting calmly in the house of an old woman he's bludgeoned to death, and they take him to the makeshift holding cell that is all Little Tall has in the way of a prison. The temporary nature of the accommodations is put under immediate intolerable stress by the onset of the storm, which is like a living character in the story (King regularly intercuts the early action with television weather forecasts predicting the size and ferocity of this behemoth bearing down on the Maine coast). The storm quickly isolates the townspeople and concentrates the action of the story, as Linoge keeps saying, "Give me what I want, and I'll go away."
It's almost immediately obvious that Linoge isn't human - instead, he's a King archetype: the tester, the supernatural agent who puts pressure on the personal fault lines of ordinary people until they crack wide open (think of King's masterful portrait of Leland Gaunt, the tester in Needful Things). One of the most consistently enjoyable little aspects of King's testers is the element of completely idiosyncratic amusement they take in watching the havoc they cause, and in this Andre Linoge ("I Am Legion," naturally) is no exception. But what he wants from the people of Little Tall is no laughing matter. His request could not be more grave (he chooses Little Tall because island people pull together in emergencies - and know how to keep secrets), as he gradually reveals to the assembled townsfolk:
By the standards of your mayfly existences, I have long to live yet - I'll still be walking the earth when all but the freshest and newest among you ... Davey Hopewell, perhaps, or young Don Beals ...
We INTERCUT SHOTS of DAVEY with his parents and DON sleeping on his cot.
... have gone to your graves. But in terms of my own existence, time has grown short. You ask me what I want?
Interior: MIKE and MOLLY ANDERSON.
MIKE already knows, and his face is filling with HORROR and FURIOUS PROTEST. When he begins speaking, his voice rising from a WHISPER TO A SCREAM, MOLLY seizes his wrist ...
No, no, no, no ...
LINOGE (ignores MIKE):
I want someone to raise and teach; someone to whom I can pass on all that I have learned and all I know; I want someone who will carry on my work when I can no longer do it myself.
He rises to his feet, dragging MOLLY with him.
No! No! Never!
LINOGE (ignores MIKE):
I want a child. One of the eight sleeping back there. It doesn't matter which one: all are just as likely in my eyes. Give me what I want - give it freely - and I'll go away.
King's novels may be bloated and unfocused these days (I keep expecting - and yes, hoping - that if nothing else, simple advancing age will prompt him to sharpen and deepen what he does every season), but I'll always hold up Storm of the Century as a good example of what his art looks like when he's in more or less perfect control of it. There are no explicit villains in the piece ... even bellicose Robbie Beals is too fully realized to be hissable, and Linoge himself is ultimately more strange and unaccountable than outright evil. As a reading experience, Storm of the Century is, believe it or not, well worth your time.
And of course I could hardly be expected to let an entry like this conclude without saying something about that long TV movie, could I? Put simply, it's fantastic, easily the most textured and worthwhile filmed product King has ever created. The redoubtable Tim Daly gives Mike Anderson an appealing vulnerability, Jeffrey DeMunn makes Robbie Beals completely three-dimensional, erstwhile dreamboat white rapper Jeremy Jordan displays the glimmers of genuine talent that were shortly afterwards flattened by drug addiction, and of course the mighty Colm Feore (so good and yet so miscast in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and so great as the semi-human villain in The Chronicles of Riddick) is utterly arresting as Andre Linoge, even though the role doesn't have all that much meat on its bones. He knocks the part out of the park, just as Max Von Sydow did for Leland Gaunt. It's probably great fun to be a tester!