The relatively new proximity of geek culture to the mainstream puts the old guard of nerddom in a difficult position. Do they continue to cling to the false idea that their interests get no mainstream respect, or do they reorient themselves to the fact that sometime around the release of Episode I their revenge was utterly, utterly complete?
The Stephen King Companion by George Beahm is written as if most of the past 20 years of pop culture didn’t happen, that genre fiction (a major component of geek culture) is still barely kept alive by sweaty men in graphic tees trading comics in hotel ballrooms. As a result, what should be 600 pages of fun exploration of a great American writer is overshadowed by the sheer defensiveness that pervades the book.
The book is structured with a biography at the front end, with subsequent chapters organized around a particular work (e.g. Salems Lot, Pet Sematary, short story collections), delving into the backstory of each text. Readers who are unfamiliar with the King legend (child of a single mother, discovered Lovecraft books in a box left by his father, began to write, hit it big with Carrie just as he was about to hang up his spurs, etc.) may find this interesting, but a much more lucid telling comes from the man himself in his transcendent memoir and style instructional, On Writing.
The level of personal detail is excessive. King fans have good reason to be rabid partisans, but it is probably unnecessary to include a 10-page interview with King’s best friend from 1958-59. You really have to love the guy to care that 12-year-old King’s "hair was kind of messy," or that the fence around the King home is "270 lineal feet…weighing 11,000 pounds." There’s a sense that the author feels if he doesn’t relay these facts then no one else will.
The source of this desire appears to be the fact that King has yet to achieve the total and complete acceptance from the literati that the author feels is the great man’s due. But after Ross Douthat has written of him admiringly, and Julianne Moore has called him "the American Dickens," there comes a point where full-throated apologia is less necessary than careful examination. This leads to sentences like, "In the hands of a hack novelist, The Shining would have been an eminently forgettable book…"
And when commentary is included, it is hagiographic. The Talisman, a cooperative effort with Peter Straub, is one of King’s middling efforts. To be sure, it’s a good book, maybe even a really good book, but in Companion it is described as "an intricately interlaced combination of horror and fantasy, or real-world terror and alternate-universe science fantasy… [that] echoes Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Mark Twain and the Wizard of Oz." The Tommyknockers, a book widely regarded by critics as unreadable and by King himself as "awful," gets the borderline hilarious description of "probably not among King’s most effective works."
Other annoyances that might have been left out include obsessive descriptions of limited edition versions of King’s books, one of which was written on "heavy, textured, off-white paper stock [that] does indeed have the ‘feel’ of a linen napkin, which was by intent." Pointless anecdotes about a woman who rode in a car once with King, a reader’s reaction to meeting King, and a King tour that is available in Bangor further clog up the pages.
It’s unfortunate that Companion has so many catastrophic failures. Seventy-four books is plenty of source material for such an explanatory work. But so much time is spent defending King’s importance in the culture that there’s little explanation of what precisely he has to say. King fans, present and future, await a better guide.