My choice for "worst book I have ever read from beginning to end" has stood for a very long time, but this week it has surely been displaced. Stephen King, a writer I admire hugely, whose work I teach and recommend, has produced perhaps the most embarrassing load of twaddle I have ever been forced to complete. Had I not been reviewing this book I would not have finished it. Not content with writing something utterly juvenile, Stephen King has also sought to head off/embarrass potential critics with constant little digs at fictional critics, and added a note at the end to say we mustn't argue that this book hasn't been edited because he has the manuscripts and editorial comments to prove that it has. I am pleased to see that Laura Miller at salon.com has also ignored the hint.
It's hard to know where to begin. The title, Lisey's Story, initially has one puzzled because the story is not about Lisey; it's about her husband Scott (a world-famous horror writer), but at the end it turns out to refer to a story about himself which Scott has left for Lisey. This makes sense because so completely has Lisey accepted the effacement of her life in Scott's that she could walk out of their apartment, having murdered her husband with a Kalashnikov, and no one (except her sisters) would ever know she existed. Her token mewls of protest would be more convincing had one been able to work out what exactly Lisey does all day apart from keep the accounts (except that later it emerges Scott did that) and perhaps a bit of housework, although that has to be assumed. In this book she mostly thinks about Scott. Thinking about Scott is both what the novel is about and possibly also her job. We are told several times that Lisey's focus on Scott is what keeps him in the world.
But I'm going too fast because the above actually sounds interesting, whereas in the book I have sitting in front of me the interest has been flogged to death over six hundred pages of mediocre to embarrassing writing. Things go wrong almost from the beginning. The very first thing King does is to introduce Lisey and tell us how to pronounce her name. To rhyme with CeeCee. Now, there are two basic guides if you give your protagonist a difficult name: either leave your readers to imagine it in their heads or don't do it in the first place. If you do explain how to pronounce their name, you have primed the reader to do a double take every time they confront the name later in the book. They might get over this, but then, for heaven's sake, don't compound the problem by introducing a bunch of made-up words that will have the reader saying "huh?" every five minutes—and no, explaining their source much later will not help, even if it is supposed to be a deep, meaningful revelation. King has decided that Lisey and Scott will have family language: "smuck" and "smucking" for "fuck" and "fucking." Initially we think this comes from Lisey, which is a bit odd because she doesn't have any problem talking about her "ass crack," and a quick survey of U.S. friends from the same area and age range (Lisey is a very unconvincing fifty) confirmed that this kind of primness sat uneasily with the later crudities. She also says things like "make water" for pee, which I last heard from a great-aunt who was a child in Queen Victoria's time. Later it turns out that "smucking" is actually a phrase from Scott's family, which frankly is even weirder, given that they were all homicidal maniacs who controlled their mania by self-harm.
But by this time we've also had to sit in on Lisey replaying Scott's conversations with her which come accompanied by "endearments" such as "babyluv" and "Little Lisey." Once or twice I could have handled but this babytalk runs through the book. This is a woman who is fifty. Who could not go to college because she was poor, but who doesn't seem to have taken advantage of her rising position in society to get educated—we get constant refrains about how she wasn't a reader but that doesn't chime with the young Lisey we hear about—who seems to have been kept young, kept "Little" by her beloved husband. That this is merely background, that I shouldn't have been focusing on this, only made me feel more irritated by this book, because the reason I shouldn't have been noticing is that I am supposed to be living in Lisey's head, mourning with her for her beloved Scott, dead two years and only now resurfacing as a sort of head ghost. Everything in this book is about Scott. But before I get to him, one more infelicity of family language. "SOWISA" ("strap on whenever it seems appropriate"), or "strap it on" as it is shortened/lengthened to. Now, what does this mean to all of you readers out there? I'm afraid that having been around the block a bit I cannot read "strap it on" as slang, as anything other than a reference to a wearable dildo: a "strap-on." King wants us to read it as an injunction to get angry/powerful/energetic/charismatic.
Once we get past the mawkishness of language (accompanied by the most embarrassing D. H. Lawrence quote ever ) we are left with "the story."
Lisey "wakes" from a two-year-long stupor after Scott's death and starts sorting through his stuff. This brings on memories of the year Scott was shot by a rabid fan, a story which goes on for several hundred pages and seems to have no purpose other than to give us the information we need to spot another rabid fan later on. During this period Lisey is visited by a Professor, an obsessive collector of writer's memorabilia and incunabula (or "Incunk," in the family language). The Prof inadvertently sets a madman on Lisey who we hear from once and then will meet again at the end. Most of the story up to this point is focused on that shooting, but the shooting itself is important really only because it confirms two things Lisey had already suspected: that Scott can travel into another world and that while there he can sip from a pool and have his injuries heal faster than is usual. And she already suspects the latter because Scott, like the rest of his family, is a cutter, and one of his injuries—made as an "offering" or a "bool" to her early in their relationship—healed with uncanny speed. We on the other hand are expected to wait another several hundred more pages to learn that the other world is "real," an extension of a game played by Scott and his dead brother. I think this is supposed to be mysterious and exciting. It mostly just leaves a space to fill and King fills it with a tale of Lisey's sister Amanda ("Manda-bunny") who has a nervous breakdown, goes catatonic, gets a place at a very posh asylum (courtesy of Scott's pre-planning) and is rescued by Lisey who by that time has learned how to access the pool world herself.
Meanwhile, back at the house, the madman turns up and attacks Lisey, bruising her mouth and cutting under her breast. I struggled to feel any empathic pain at all. Lisey turns out to heal as quickly as Scott, thanks to access to "the pool," and the incident leads to more internal revelations. She remembers the story of how Scott's brother went mad, his Daddy killed him, and Scott buried him in the other world. Lisey lays a trap for the madman (with the aid of Amanda, except she isn't actually very helpful, to the point where you wonder why Lisey bothered to rescue her), and leaves him in the portal world. The novel ends with Lisey finding the story Scott left her in the portal world which is essentially a lengthy version of "Daddy went mad, I killed him, and buried him in the well." Then she gets her sisters around, clears out the house and decides to get on with her life. Although it is not at all clear what her life is or will be. I don't think Lisey has a single hobby, nor does she appear to have any friends but her sisters.
The book spirals around the fixed idea that Scott is the most amazing man in the universe. As Lisey has no friends and we barely see her sisters, there is nothing to break this conceit. Fucked up, childish, wanting his wife to have no life but him, constantly insisting on his dependence on her, he dominates her life even after his death. The one relief in this novel was the note at the back assuring us that Lisey is not Tabitha King. Good.
Despite the Daily Mail's cover recommendations on the U.K. edition, Lisey's Story neither thrills, terrifies, or delights with texture and invention. Its motifs are predictable and the novel is structurally uninventive. All horror requires the build up of tension followed by catharsis (for which the self-harm in this book may be meant as a metaphor) but in Lisey's Story the build up doesn't work and the catharsis is too trivial, too easily dealt with. It is that most unforgivable of things in the horror genre, dull.
1. "She turned and saw a great white moon looking at her over the hill. And her breast opened to it, she was cleaved like a transparent jewel to its light. She stood filled with the full moon, offering herself. Her two breasts opened to make way for it, her body opened wide like a quivering anemone, a soft, dilated invitation touched by the moon." D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow