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TAC Bookshelf: Searching for That Old Stephen King Magic

Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.

Kelley Vlahos, executive editor: He’s just phoning them in now…would a publisher even look twice at this if it wasn’t Stephen King? Just a sampling of the one- and two-star reviews given to King’s latest, a collection of “previously unpublished” novellas, If It Bleeds. Yet overall, Amazon reviewers gave the book, which came out at the height of the corona lockdown in April, four and a half out of five stars. 

King’s fanbase is loyal and patient. They accept that his characters are no longer cut from the thick weave of his imagination; they derive, nearly all of them now, from archetypes that inhabit his 60-plus previous books over a career spanning nearly a half century. They accept that his politics (firmly liberal, anti-Trump) will constantly seep, rather ham-fistedly, into his prose. They accept that he repeats himself within stories and even in the themes of his stories. Coming from an author whose every word in The Dead Zone seemed carefully placed to elicit tick-tocking moments of sheer dread leading up to an explosive ending, much of this repeating feels like padding. I don’t think any author not named Stephen King could get away with this.

That said, I ordered King’s If It Bleeds during a COVID quarantine urge and at the recommendation of fellow TAC writer Brad Birzer, who is a big fan. The book includes “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” which is engaging enough but comes off as an elaborate lift of Twilight Zone’s “Long Distance Call.” The title story “If It Bleeds” is another installment in King’s crime series starring detective Holly Gibney. “The Rat” is another play on the old writer meltdown theme, which we have seen in numerous King plots.

So I will talk about the novella I believe had the most potential, “The Life of Chuck,” which is ironically the least favorite according to a cursory glance at the reviews. That’s mostly, I believe, because of the off-putting organization and the need for more fleshing out. In it, the world is going to hell—flood, famine, fury. All the while, strange billboards thanking Chuck Krantz “for 39 years of service” are popping up, and in Internet and TV advertisements, too. No spoilers here, but King manages to put the narcissism of our social media-centric reality into eerie perspective in a fresh and creative way. What falls short, however, are his transitions and a clunky attempt to tell the story backward, mixing it in with a completely different ghost story. With the twist more or less in the middle, it leaves readers flummoxed and wanting more. 

But there is a glimmer here of the old King magic, the kind that imbued all of his early books, one that could really set a mood and keep the pages turning into the night. Where the reader is prone to say, “I’m never going to get to sleep without the lights on,” not merely, “meh.”

Casey Chalk, TAC contributor: George Will, in what I would offer as one of the best pieces of opinion journalism of the year, declared in a June 26 op-ed that “much of today’s intelligentsia is not intelligent.” Noting the “ever-intensifying hurricane of hysteria” about the sins of our nation’s past, he argues: “An admirable intelligentsia, inoculated by education against fashions and fads, would make thoughtful distinctions arising from historically informed empathy. It would be society’s ballast against mob mentalities. Instead, much of America’s intelligentsia has become a mob.” The “lumpen pseudo-intellectuals are “intellectually monochrome purveyors of groupthink.”

Who can rescue us from this impoverishment? Why, the Bard of Avon, argues Rhodes College English professor Scott Newstok in his recently published How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. Such an academic assertion may seem too tempered for these intemperate times, too esoteric for an excitable electorate. So what? “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

In 14 short, pithy chapters, Newstok shows how to recover the lost art of thinking. “My conviction is that education must be about thinking — not training a set of specific skills,” he declares in the prologue. As a former high school history educator who was trained in my graduate program to teach children “critical thinking” at the expense of knowing and appreciating the past, I give a hearty amen. He mourns: “We now act as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.”

Newstock assails an education system that’s suffering under the stress of utilitarian standardized testing and Common Core curricula. He urges us to return to an Aristotelian education model that perceives the telos of study as developing citizens to flourish in democracy and “becoming a good person.” His reformist plan is heavy on tradition: “When someone is undertaking meaningful work, the thoughts of the men of past ages guide their hands.” He praises the importance of place. He attacks our inattention culture and its “omnipresent self-absenting.”

Newstok warns of the dangers of digital technology to learning and societal inculturation (see the work of photographer Eric Pickersgill). He argues that imitation is actually the means by which people come to be learned and capable of creativity. He explains how one must acquire a stock of knowledge from one’s own literary and cultural tradition if one wants to meaningfully contribute to the present. He promotes the value of restraint. Is this a reasonable, coherent vision of conservatism or what? One wonders only if Newstok’s prescriptions are too late, as even “conservative” institutions are dispensing with philosophy departments.

Even here, Shakespeare’s words are apropos: “wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, But cheerly seek how to redress their harms. What though the mast be now blown overboard, The cable broke, the holding-anchor lost, And half our sailors swallow’d in the flood? Yet lives our pilot still.” Perhaps there is still hope. Though it all depends on who is the pilot…

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