Friday Reviews: Secret Windows by Stephen King

Secret Windows by Stephen KingSecret Windows

Stephen King

The follow-up to his classic writing memoir, On Writing, compiles a series of essays, lectures, and the odd short piece of fiction on the craft of writing. Meant to be a companion piece to the former book, Secret Windows takes its name from the novella of the same name, later a Johnny Depp movie. The intro to the original Secret Windows is here, as is a large chunk of Danse Macabre, King’s first non-fiction book on the subject of modern horror.

Many people wonder why horror is so full of absolute dreck, and yet King is considered one of our premier novelists.It’s simple. King writes about us. His setting is a fictionalized version of Maine. Derry, setting for It is Bangor, right down to the canal bisecting downtown. Castle Rock is the same small town where King grew up. Dark Score Lake and TR90, from The Dark Half and Bag of Bones, are the same lakeside unincorporated township where the King family has a summer home, and where King himself had an unhappy collision with a Dodge minivan that nearly killed him.

In other words, King takes his own everyday reality, clones it into his fiction, and drops in horror elements to take his characters out of their comfort zones (or even the land of the living.) Ed McBain did this with New York City. And even when the cities are real, authors use that same familiarity to plunge something out of the ordinary into otherwise unremarkable, or at least predictable, lives. That’s why King’s horror works.

The best part of the book is the lectures. King doesn’t call them lectures. He just riffs for an hour or two to his audience, sometimes vulgar and cranky, sometimes like a favorite uncle telling you stories about where he works. In either case, he’s very comfortable, showing us that writers are no different from anyone else. They just have more vivid imaginations. He also questions the sanity of people who think you have to be insane to write horror. Isn’t it insane, he posits, to pretend bad things don’t happen? He thinks that’s why a novel like Salem’s Lot worked. The people most offended by it were the people being skewered. (And, as a side note, the vampire and his toadie seemed to be the most normal people in that book.)

What didn’t work for me was plunking down 150 pages of Danse Macabre in the middle of the book. I already read Danse Macabre. A short excerpt would have been fine, but without those chapters, the book would have been 250-300 instead of 431 and still held the reader’s interest.

Still, if you haven’t read any of King’s non-fiction, this isn’t a bad intro. It’s also expensive, with both the paperback and hard cover editions listed as $40 new on Amazon. Obviously, it’s meant for collectors and King aficionados.