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Lisey's Story, U.S. cover

Lisey's Story, U.K. cover

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 [1]) 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

Farah Mendlesohn is the outgoing editor of Foundation and blogs at The Inter-Galactic Playground. Her book Rhetorics of Fantasy is forthcoming in 2008.



Farah Mendlesohn is the author of The Inter-Galactic Playground, and the editor of On Joanna Russ, both nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book this year. She edited the journal Foundation for six years.
18 comments on “Lisey's Story by Stephen King”
Neal Cline

I think that this review says much more about Ms. Mendlesohn than it does about Steven King or his book. She is one of those who automatically puts King into the horror genre whether he is writing horror or not. Also, she apparently prefers "easy" books; easy to read, easy to write about, easy to classify. The problem with King is that he doesn't fit into that mold anymore. His writing has elements of horror, fantasy, noir and yes, even sometimes romance. Perhaps Ms. Mendlesohn has not been married 20+ years and does not know the truisms of a long marriage, such as inner languages. Perhaps she's never loved someone enough to know that sometimes you let the other person shine while you stand aside. Perhaps she doesn't realize that relationships of this kind don't die easily. I understand that in the book King refers to things only those who have stayed together half a lifetime can understand. Those who have laughed together, cried together, raised children together, fought together, suffered together; those who have paid their marriage dues and still stuck it out. I have no doubt that King knew this book would have a limited appeal to those who don't understand this. But as I said, the shallow hostility inherent in her review says more about Ms. Mendlesohn than about anything or anyone else.

Jeff VanderMeer

I agree with Neal that this is one of the most spectacular mis-readings of a novel that I have seen in quite some time.
Jeff VanderMeer

Christopher Barzak

Haven't read the novel, but I think it's a crap excuse to say there are things in the book that only people who have lived half a lifetime together will be able to understand. IF that's actually true, King should be able, as a writer, to make those things understandable for readers who have not lived half a lifetime with another person.
I'm not saying he didn't. Remember, I haven't read it. I'm saying that it's a crap excuse to say there are whole swathes of readers who will just not "get it" simply because of their relationship histories--or "deficiencies" as perhaps you would have it, if I read your tone correctly.
I *did* read the first five pages, though, and put it down and bought another book the other night when I considered it.
And I like a lot of King's work. This one just didn't pull me in. Maybe sometime in the future it will. I've read lots of books that I've put down many times before being in the right mood to read the sort of book it is.

Farah Mendlesohn

Hi Neil
I met my partner when I was eighteen. We've been together fifteen years.
For the rest: horses for courses, but note that I love much of King's work. I didn't expect to hate this book.

Neal Cline

Thank you for the comments. I hope that Christopher's contention that I sounded smug is untrue. If it IS true, I apologize, Christopher. I realize you are commenting on my posting, not on the book, which in my view is a very good book. I've read it twice. But Ms. Mendlesohn, I note that you are an editor, and you still spelled my name wrong. oops.

Neal Cline

Abigail, thank you. I seem to have touched nerve somewhere. But let's be specific: I was talking about a long-term marriage. I re-read it to be sure. I used the word three times. In our society today, any long-term relationship is held at the same value as a marriage, and that is a false assumption. A partner is not necessarily a spouse and being together is not necessarily being married. But I have placed Ms. Mendelsohn in the position of having to defend herself, and that is wrong. She should only have to defend her review, which I felt was shallow and lazy. My criticism of her review was valid, but my speculation of why was not. I apologize to her, and ask her to forgive my ungentlemanly behavior.

Neal Cline.
Since you have exposed to us a philosophy of marriage which inherently distinguishes it from cohabitation of whatever intensity, I thought you should know a couple of things. I mean, over and above the profoundly offensive implications of what you seem to feel.
Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James have lived together for the period Farah mentions. They own their home in common. They have edited many books and journals together. They have been legally married for many years.
John Clute

Neal Cline

John Clute,
Oh, you should not give me so many targets at once! Where to begin....ok, there is no such thing as a "philosophy of marriage". Either you is or either you ain't. If that offends you, so what? "Cohabitation of any intensity"? Is that a real phrase? Maybe on your planet. Second, if you read the last entry I made, I clearly stated that I was out of line to speculate why Ms. Mendlesohn wrote such a lousy review. I specifically stated that she shouldn't HAVE to defend herself, only her review. But here you come to save the day! Once and for all, knight in shoddy armor: Ms. Mendelsohn's private life is her business, and her review of Lisey's Story stinks. I don't care what she's written, what she's edited before, who she lives with, or how she pays the bills. She wrote a bad review here. Of course, that's just my opinion, which apparently you think I don't have a right to have. I'll bet you are the type who would fight to the death for my right to agree with you, which makes you essentially...useless. Thanks for sharing.
Neal Cline

John Clute

Neal Cline,
1)In my message (see above), I said nothing about Stephen King or his novel, which I have not read. Nothing in my message implies anything other than this.
2)I do not know if I would agree or disagree with Farah Mendlesohn's review, after reading the novel. Nothing in my message implies anything other than this.
3)I quote you: "I'll bet you are the type who would fight to the death for my right to agree with you, which makes you essentially...useless." I think you lose your bet. I would go a long way to try to persuade you that you are wrong, but that is the nature of argument in a free society. My final position is that, in the end, you (and anyone) should do what you wish to do, and say what you will. Then pay for it.
4) My comments were addressed to what seemed to me to be a singularly offensive discrimination between married people who cohabit and unmarried people who cohabit. I note that you apologize for applying this discrimination to your assessment of Farah Mendlesohn's qualifications for writing a review about a book that deals with marriage; I also note that although you apologize (as indeed you should) for applying your opinions to that particular context, you do not apologize for holding the opinions themselves.
5) In a narrow sense you must have been embarrassed to realize that those opinions, expressed (as you acknowledge) in an inappropriate context, were made to look all the more sophomoric by the fact that your target, whom you condescendingly assumed had no experience of family life, was in fact married.
6) In a broader sense, you opened a can of worms by making a prescriptive distinction between married and unmarried couples. You may be entirely innocent of speaking in code, but very few people who make the distinction you make are in fact innocent. Most people know very well (which you might not) that to make that distinction is to utter in code an invidious discrimination between heterosexual unions sanctioned by state and church, and homosexual unions which (over most of the world) cannot be granted such sanction. It is also to utter in code a condemnation of heterosexual unions which violate the precepts of various Christian churches and sects because they are engaged upon without sacrament.(I am myself, by the way, heterosexual and have been married for 43 years. I mention this here to stave off any assumption that I'm writing as a defendant in the writ you seem to have drawn against certain categories of shared lives.) If you used this very widespread coding in ignorance of the philosophy (yes, philosophy) that normally underlies it, then I apologize for assuming you were saying more than you were in fact intending to say.
But if you used this coding in knowledge of its implications, then I think it was duplicitous of you to speak in code.
John Clute

Neal Cline

Mr. Clute:
Your thoughts are well expressed, but your conclusions are flawed. I am not who you think (assume) I am. But this is not the proper forum. This space is about the books. I enjoy the argument alot. I think debate is a good form of training for critical thinking. I would invite you to continue this discussion somewhere else. Suggestions?
Neal Cline

Dianne

It seems rather childish to cite another negative review simply as a demonstration of "See? Someone else disliked it, too."
An even better reason not to do so is that the Salon review is thoughtful and measured, whereas this review is not. The complaint against the name Lisey should have been deleted in revision as just too silly to warrant discussion. The main point of the review and the apparent reason for the reviewer's animus -- that Lisey was attached to and dependent on her husband -- is less a critical reaction to a work of art than an ideological position: woman characters should be "strong." I expect better from a review.

Andrew leigh

Well all I can say is that the book is what you make of it. I was totally taken in by it and understood where Mr King was coming from. We all have our own 'Boo'ya Moon' and I go there from time to time. It's just what you make of it at the end of the day............

Dear Neal Cline,
Sorry not to respond earlier to your comment of 7 November, but I was distracted by travel and other stuff.
Yes: happy to talk with you in another context, though one doesn't immediately come to mind: and we might even find ourselves sharing more than it seemed at first we might.
If you've ever attended ICFA in Florida, that's where I'll next be meat-puppetting.
John C

Rafal Lewandowski

"It is that most unforgivable of things in the horror genre, dull."
And I think that the most unforgivable of things in the reviews genre is revealing the ending fo the reviewed book.
Dull.

Jim D.

For the reviewer who could only think of straping it on referring to a dildo... you problably should have gotten out more as a child and played with other kids.
Strap it on to me refers to putting a helmet on. It is often heard on football sidelines or in military situations and means exactly what Mr. King intended it to

Shunt

"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."
No, it doesn't end like that. Re-read the book and get the ending right. And your try to interpret "SOWISA" says more about you than it does about SK.

Silver

I think, on balance, this is simply an appalling review. Having just finished my own first book, I'd feel outraged that 'inside relationship' quirks and explanation of pronouncing a name were two of the biggest criticisms in this review.
I happen to believe that SK's little 'insider' quirks are mostly what endears people to his writing. I am also appreciative of most of SK's work. I couldn't say how many books/collections of short stories I have read, but aside from 'It', 'Lisey's Story' is my favourite of them all.
For me, Lisey's Story is a love gift. In my view, it is largely about leaving someone you love behind, finding a way to love that person even from beyond death through memory and mementos. It may indeed not be based on Tabitha King, but is certainly written (in my view) for her, as that love gift. Scott leaves Lisey a story; so does SK. It's a better gift then memoirs or chocolate no? I don't agree that marriages, or fifteen, twenty year relationships are the only examples of people that can relate to this book.
I've just turned 22 myself, and can relate two of my relationships strongly to this book. It's not really about time or marriage, though naturally the longer the relationship is, the more secrets and insider information. It's just simply about two people that love each other very much - the dark side of love and the light.
I think it is beautifully written, and SK is a natural romantic anyway in most of his books. I wouldn't say that for the most part, a majority of books are intended to be 'terrifying' horror stories anyway. H.P. Lovecraft was an awesome horror writer to the extent that when I have read some stories my stomach has turned in fear. I think what this book does rather more than most, but is certainly was SK really is about, is pulling the reader in by their heartstrings. There is a form of horror that is simply horrifying only because of the mixture of beauty and darkness.
That's the type of book SK writes generally, but this one is impressively human and raw... indeed, it touched my heartstrings very deeply.

Meryel

Seems like to have been written by a jealous wanna-be writer. Do not forget to criticise King next time because his name appears on the book cover...

 

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