Saturday, August 29, 2009

George Pelecanos and Stephen King are Brothers

by Scott D. Parker

What, you say? How can one of the masters of modern horror and a master of modern crime fiction be related? King's a lad from Maine while Greek-American Pelecanos was born and bred in our nation's capital. As far as I know, they've never met. One writes about monsters, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night. The other writes about the city, other types of monsters, and gunshots that sound in the night.

Aha! That must be it, you are now thinking. Both men write about evil. King's evil things are often supernatural although there are enough real-life evil-doers (Annie from Misery, anyone?) to fill a Pelecanos crime novel. Pelecanos for his part fills his books with characters that some of us view as evil and fictional (how about Wayne from The Way Home?) and others of us know as real and misunderstood. That's all true and I don't discount it.

Instead, however, I am going to focus on something else: the normalcy in their writings. Fiction, in general, is make believe. You know you are reading a story because you're sitting at home, on your couch, reading. If you like to read science fiction or romances set in the Middle Ages, the veneer of normalcy is non-existent. How can any of us relate to an astronaut meeting an alien for the first time? We can't. Even horror fiction, King's specialty. I mean really? Demonic clowns, possessed dogs, little girls that can make fire? C'mon. That stuff Just Doesn't Happen.

The beauty of King's stories, and what makes them so terrifying, is in the ordinary. One of his underrated gifts is the ability to conjure a world that we know and can understand. Before King, many authors would write the following type of sentence: "Hank sat on his porch, drinking a cold beverage, listening to the ballgame on the radio when the creature emerged from the edge of the woods." Yeah, that's scary. King, however, would write something like this: "Hank sat on his porch drinking a Bud listening to the Red Sox game on the radio when the creature that would have made Lovecraft proud emerged from the edge of the woods." By naming names and being specific with his prose, King grounded his characters squarely in the real world. His readers could easily see themselves in this real world. Thus, when things all went downhill, the reader could relate to the characters as they battled Pennywise (or whatever) and ask themselves if they'd do the same thing. It was the normalness in King's world that made the supernatural that much more terrifying.

As I read Pelecanos's latest novel, The Way Home, I realized that he writes the same way King does. In crime stories, there's a veneer of normalcy but it's often thin and breaks down easily. If Raymond Chandler is right about the detective hero, that he's the one who must go down the mean streets, how many of us would recognize what's it truly like to *live* in those mean streets? Sure, we like to watch from afar but how few of us can actually relate to that kind of existence?

The Flynn family in The Way Home is a normal family, folks to whom we can relate. The son, Chris, spent time in juvenile prison and finds life on the outside not easy. His father, Thomas, considers himself a failure but he's trying to make his business work for his family and his employees. For the bulk of the book, Pelecanos gives us back stories and slice-of-life vignettes. For awhile there, I started to wonder if I was reading a crime story or a piece of general fiction. However, this normalcy is threatened as soon as the bad guys are introduced. Having painted a world we can understand, the presence of evil disturbs us and makes us feel the grown sense of dread. The normalcy is so natural, we ask ourselves "What would I do?" Frankly, it made the book.

Sure, it's fun to read the exploits of government agents, detectives, dazzling heroines, or rumpled archaeologists. It gets our blood pumping and our heart racing and palms sweaty. It's why we read books (or go to movies). But there's a little something extra you get when you can enter a world, recognize it, and then be terrified by something out of the ordinary. Stephen King and George Pelecanos are two modern storytellers who can create believable worlds and introduce evil. That makes them brothers.

Who are some of your favorite authors who can do the same?


sandra seamans said...

I think Minette Walters did this perfectly in "The Ice House" and Patry Francis blew me away with "The Liar's Diary". Both books put you in a normal world then pulled the rug out from under the reader.

Steve Weddle said...

Great points about setting up the normal so you can knock it down.

I wonder, though, about the guy (usually me), reading the first page to decide whether to buy the book. How much normal can you take before you need the monster?

John McFetridge said...

I'm with Steve, the "monster" has to show up right away, but I also agree with the post that the more normal the setting the better.

I prefer writing that accepts that we all know a lot of stuff and doesn't take too long to, "set the scene."

Stephen King did it really well, in, of all things, Cell. Something that might be considered a bit of a throwaway book is really a great example of this monster in the normal setting. There are so many small details in the setting and the characters that place it formyly in the normal world.

Here's an example from: A character has died, an older man who was a teacher and one of his students wants to have a funeral. One of the other characters, a gay guy, sews something (okay, I read it a while ago and forget the details, sue me ;) and when someone looks at him he says, "No jokes. Not even the lame Will and Grace kind."

It's a silly book about zombies but that one scene is a good example why stephen King is Stephen King.

Dave White said...

Definitely important to draw your reader into a real world. King and Pelecanos do it masterfully, whether it's with backstory or just the events, descriptions, or conversations of the characters.

Dana King said...

The scariest and most disconcerting stories that create a sensation in the back of your head while reading: This could happen. It could even happen to me, or to someone I care about. This is why I'm not a huge fan of supercriminals and apocalyptic plots. There's only so far disbelief can be suspended before you're working at it instead of living in the story. The more ordinary the setting--and, to some extent, the characters--the more you can get away with. At least with me.

formulaic666 said...

Not a crime writer, but someone who places their novels in such a real place is Douglas Coupland. Every book of his I read I can instantly relate to his characters, so well drawn and grounded as they are.

Scott D. Parker said...

Sandra - I know *of* the Ice House but not the other book.

Steve - If I were that guy reading page 1 and it's "normal", I'd likely as not put the book down and move on. Double-edged sword, huh?

John - I think readers and viewers in 2009 know A LOT of stuff. Thus, set up, for me, can be avoided. I read Cell and I agree with you re: the monster in the normal world. And I enjoyed the ending as well.

Dave - Just goes to prove the point, in a small way, that genres are merely labels made up by publishing houses. A good book, written well, stands on its own.

Dana - I got that feeling as I read Jeff Abbott's Trust Me this summer. All the crap the protag goes through really could happen in a split second. Made the book tres enjoyable.

Forulaic666 - Hmm, never heard of Coupland. I'm off to the web to take a peek. Thanks for stopping by.