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?