Over the weekend, I finished re-reading Stephen King’s “The Regulators.” As I read these days, I look not only to be entertained, but to learn from those I consider masters of my craft. I took quite a bit of learning away from this re-read.
1. I love descriptions that are so well-done that I feel that if I look up from the book, I won’t see the familiar pictures on my living room wall or the tree leaves that dance above me in my hammock. Instead, I’ll be on that winding road, or in that bar room, car, mansion, shack, cemetary, store – wherever it is the characters happen to be when I look up.
Many writers don’t do enough of that. Others cross the line into overkill. Yes, I want to know where I’m at, but if after two pages you’re still telling me about the foliage in the forrest or the dust on the shelves in the abandoned cabin, I’m probably losing interest. Give me enough to build my mental image, and move on.
Stephen King has always been a master at that, and in the “Regulators” he really shines. Maybe not throughout the entire book, but in the places you really need to know.
Seth, the boy who has been taken over by the bad guy …errr, thing … in this book, spends most of his time in his aunt’s living room watching TV and eating hamburger and Chef Boyardee. King manages to describe this setting so well that it wasn’t the blood-and-guts-shoot-em-up-action scenes that left me with a case of the willies. It was the inevitable return to that living room.
During one reading session, I could so clearly see a coffee table loaded down with bowls encrusted with tomato soup and old burger meat that I didn’t want dinner that night. I even went on a cleaning spree once, because when I looked away from the book I was still seeing stacks of congealed canned food in my mind’s eye.
A book that gets me to clean? Now THAT’S good shit.
2. Far-fetched horror may be easy to imagine, but it can make for pretty rough writing. The nightmare in your head may be perfectly captivating to you as the writer, but you have to get a bunch of others to believe in it too. I don’t mean “believe” as in they literally think it could happen the next time they stroll down the street. But the story has to allow for enough suspension of disbelief that you can fall into the fantasy for the duration of the read.
Otherwise, you may have a really genius zombie/vampire/ghost plot going, but your readers can’t get past the whole “yeah, right, whatever” stage enough to take the ride.
The Regulators is essentially about a bunch of suburbanites who get attacked by some kids’ toys that come to life under the spell of a demon, while their postage stamp yards turn into a version of the Wild West.
Um, yeah. Right. Whatever.
Only you don’t “whatever” when you’re reading it, because King makes it real. I’m not sure how he does it, and it is an art I want to master. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with how he keeps drawing you back to that living room full of Chef Boyardee leavins’. That’s something real and tangible. You can see congealed tomato sauce and smell overcooked goo. The vaguely nauseating horror of that very real scene opens up your heebie-jeebie receptors, and all the sudden you can feel just how terrifying it would be to look out your window and see buzzards and a cactus where there used to be a rose bush.
3. The most loveable characters are often not very likeable. Both times I’ve read “The Regulators,” I have loved Johnny Marinville. He’s an egostistical, self-centered and pretty geezerly writer who fled to suburbs to escape frying his brain on fame, booze and drugs. I definitely don’t think Brad Pitt would be playing him in the movie. But he’s a hero all the same, in his own warped and sometimes annoying way. You can make your reader love an almost unloveable character if you paint him in just enough of the right moments.
We don’t want perfect. We want characters who do the right thing in spite of their screaming imperfections – you know, the kind of people we could actually BE.
4. Even King isn’t perfect
There were moments in this re-read of “The Regulators” that I found myself saying “why did he do that?” Mostly, this had to do with where he chose to jump back and forth from the present to the past. There were moments I felt a little disjointed, like the roller-coaster was jerking me around more than it should. But in the end, I were still glad I’d gotten on the ride.