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Interviews, Page III

[stephen spignesi] [ed gorman] [kathi goldmark] [peter straub] [michael collings]

Ten Questions for Michael Collings

Michael R. Collings is a Poet-in-Residence at Seaver College of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. In addition to the many books he has written about Stephen King (The Many Facets of Stephen King, Stephen King as Richard Bachman, The Shorter Works of Stephen King [with David Engebretson]), he has also contributed much to the field of Mormon literature, and is the foremost chronicler of the works of Orson Scott Card.

Mr. Collings's book-by-book reviews in George Beahm's The Stephen King Companion (1995 edition) are the main inspiration for my book reviews on Charnel House. Without Michael Collings, Charnel House as we know it would not exist. (I also want to throw out a thank you for helping me get an A on my report on the Bachman books when I was in senior year at Braintree High.) Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Michael Collings.

1. First of all, I'd like to thank you for agreeing to do this interview for Charnel House. We're very excited about your new bibliography on King, Horror Plum'd. Can you tell us a little bit about the book, and how close it is to publication?

The book is intended to represent an end-of-millennium view of King's works, including as many international editions as possible to suggest the extraordinary extent to which Stephen King has helped define American-and indeed World-culture during the closing decades of the past century. The sheer number of books involved indicates his enormous popularity world-wide, and thereby his influence on the way his generation and succ eeding generations think, perceive the world around them, imagine their place in that world. On occasion I have remarked-only half jokingly-that William Shakespeare was the Stephen King of his day. HORROR PLUM'D is designed not only as a reference tool for readers, fans, and scholars, but also as a tribute to his phenomenal success. Most of the data has been collected, and the next (final) stage is formatting it, putting it into a usable arrangement based primarily on King's writings. While it will cover film adaptations, audio presentations, and other variations, the bibliography will emphasize King's words. Our plan at the moment is to publish a companion volume later devoted entirely to secondary materials: books and articles about King, scholarly studies, etc. I hope to deliver the manuscript to Overlook Connection Press by mid-April or May, so the book should appear later this year.

2. The last of your full-length book reviews I read was the review of Rose Madder you wrote for George Beahm's Phantasmagoria. In it, you seemed concerned that King was focusing on issue over story (something King first attempted with Gerald's Game). What are your thoughts on his more recent fiction, in particular the issue-heavy Hearts in Atlantis?

My initial concern with GERALD'S GAME has diminished over the past few books. King is a master storyteller, and his decision to include more 'meat' in those stories seems appropriate to his increasing stature as writer and as cultural icon. He is almost required, I suppose, to take stands on key issues. That in itself is not a problem, of course; his novels have always been issue-oriented in that sense, incorporating as they do anatomies of the contemporary family (and its breakdown), of American educational systems, of American values. It is just that in GERALD'S GAME, that concern overwhelmed the sense of storytelling. I am impressed, however, with his ability to integrate his social concerns with story in more recent works. ROSE MADDER points the way-significant social interest carefully interwoven with the threads of story. And while I still prefer some of his earlier works-'SALEM'S LOT, THE STAND (both versions), the DARK TOWER stories, etc.-I look forward to seeing what new directions he will explore now. BAG OF BONES, for example, an issue-oriented book to be sure, is simultaneously a marvelously told story that becomes more compelling with each reading.

3. Are you surprised at the current mainstream acceptance of King? Seemingly since Bag of Bones and forward, the critics are giving King the merit he's deserved all along. As a long-time "facilitator" of the works of King, are you being taken more seriously, as well?

I'm not particularly surprised at the mainstream critical response in general. King is good enough to merit it (and to have merited it all along, of course). Scholars and critics are frequently about a generation behind in understanding what authors have attempted, so the timing is about right. In addition, King has demonstrated his durability-it is increasingly difficult to write him off as a flash-in-the-pan horror writer. He helped define the contemporary genre, he is its leading practitioner, and he is still producing high-quality work when a number of those who came after him have in large part dropped out or shifted directions. Anyone interested in a cultural history of the last few decades simply has to consider King, and consideration had led to broader acceptance. In addition, his increasingly 'mature' blend of horror, story, and social issues is bound to appeal to the mainstream critics, who can now see him as one of 'them'-speaking not to a narrow audience of pre-adolescents but to a much wider audience of adults, with adult themes and adult perspectives. In my own case, I see an increased acceptance of King-and others-in academic circles, although not wholesale by any means, and not across the board. But scholars interested in contemporary trends are fully aware of how important King has been. It's a thrill, I must admit, to get an email asking a question, or to find myself footnoted in an article. It's been a rewarding experience at the least.

4. You've also written a few books (Card Catalogue, In the Image of God, among others) on Orson Scott Card, another of my favorite authors, including a bibliography similar to Horror Plum'd. How would you compare Card to other modern SF/Fantasy writers, such as Robert Jordan, Piers Anthony and William Gibson?

I think the Card ranks among our best contemporary writers...period. No qualifications. No demurring. He has an extraordinary range of skills, he has honed them carefully over several decades of dedication to writing and to storytelling, and he is as concerned with the crucial importance of Story and Storytelling to human existence as any writer I know. Okay-you get the idea. For me, Card is one of the few SF/F writers who is not bound to a single voice, a single vision, a single perception. He is capable of imagining backwards and forwards, past and future, while never losing sight of how his writing impinges upon the present. He is capable of moving from straight-line space opera (but excellent space opera) into the philosophical questioning that is a hallmark of the finest SF/F. One of the true delights in working with the Card bibliography (proofs just reached the publisher, so it should be out soon) was the simple requirement that I re-read every Card novel. Doing so has increased my conviction that he possesses an unusual talent, that he is willing to explore it in constantly shifting directions, and that his stories will-many of them, at least-become an enduring part of our awareness of who and what we are.

5. Do you believe that Card's reliance on Mormon teachings (used subtly in the Alvin Maker series; far more explicitly in works such as Lost Boys) isolates him from a section of the SF/Fantasy community? Religious fiction has always been seen as very secular, at least until the recent popularity of the Left Behind series. How accessible is Card's fiction to someone who is non-Mormon?

A few years ago I had the opportunity to prepare a Scholar Guest-of-Honor Address for the Conference of the Mythopoeic Society. My topic was Orson Scott Card. I needed to emphasize the ethical, spiritual, and religious bases of his fictions for an audience that was NOT Mormon, that in many cases knew little or nothing about Mormonism, and that in a few cases were antagonistic to Mormonism. Yet the resulting paper proved highly successful, simply because Card is not a 'Mormon' writer. He is a writer who is a Mormon. There is an essential difference between the two, even though the syntax tends to hide it. Everything Card writes is influenced by who he is, just as would be the case with any other writer; and since he is a practicing Mormon, elements of his beliefs occur throughout his stories. But he never sets out to preach, to proselytize, to convince (and in fact he has received some criticism from readers within the Mormon community for not being Mormon enough!) He simply asserts a world view, whether it be in the form of a historical novel, such as SAINTS; an alternate-universe fantasy such as the Alvin Maker series; or a distant-future SF extrapolation, such as in the Homecoming series. Readers approaching the Alvin Maker novels, or the completed Homecoming series will, of course, have a deeper understanding of what Card is doing if they are at least marginally familiar with the history of Joseph Smith or the narrative flow of the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon.

But even without that background, Card's readers can easily become involved-immersed-in the worlds he creates, in the values he examines, in the social structures he explores. To return for a moment to the Guest-of-Honor I was preparing an introduction, it struck me that there was no read need to apologize for Card as a religious person writing science fiction, or even as a Christian writing to a larger audience. The more I worked with the article, the more similarities I could see between C. S. Lewis and his approach to fiction and Card and his approach. One needn't be Anglican to appreciate Lewis; one needn't be Mormon to appreciate Card.

6. You are also a poet, a fact I was unaware of until recently. Have you published any collections of poetry? How would you compare modern poetry (such as works by Stephen Dobyns) to established classics, such as the works of Browning or Eliot? In the same vein, how would you compare Stephen King's poetry to his larger canon of fiction?

I've published a number of collections, several on the internet; several through small-press publishers particularly interested in science fiction, fantasy, and horror; and a number myself. I see the poem and the book containing it as extensions of each other, and for that reason I've spent the past few years exploring the art of bookmaking (resulting in a book-handmade, of course-called Practical BookMaking), giving workshops on making books, and in general enjoying the freedom of seeing a book through from initial conception to final product.

As to your question - it is intriguing that you list both Browning and Eliot as 'classics' since their poetry has virtually nothing in common. But that is, I think, the essence of contemporary poetry. Literally anything goes. We are in a unique period when the old 'establishment' forms-not rhyme and meter as one might suppose, but Free Verse itself-are opening to greater and greater exploration. Poets are re-discovering rhyme and meter, but filtering them through the experiences of Eliot and Pound, Moore and cummings. It seems that right now, being a poet is perhaps as exciting as it has ever been, at least for the past several centuries, since we are free to incorporate everything or nothing, to imitate or to create. Sorry, that sounds a bit inflated, but I do think it is true. I run a monthly poetry workshop at the local Borders Books and Music (now going into year six!) and am constantly surprised and intrigued by the range and variety-and excellence-of poetry I see. So I guess the best answer is that I am an eclectic poet. Right now, I am busy 'deconstructing' sonnets-tomorrow, who knows?

As to King's poetry. I did an article a number of years ago, "THE RADIATING PENCILS OF HIS BONES: THE POETRY OF STEPHEN KING" for Stephen Spignesi's The Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia. King is, I think, a strong poet - as, by the way, is Card. Poetry is not his greatest talent, but the few poems he has published demonstrate his sensitivity to image, language, compression... characteristics shared by much modern poetry. But his poems are, I think, most interesting for the insight they give into his imagination, and thereby into his fiction. I don't necessarily believe that poets always wear their hearts on their sleeves, as people so frequently assume. But there is something about the nature of poetry that allows writers to define themes, images, directions, that will recur throughout their creative lives in their fictions. King's poetry certainly does that. I would like to see more of it.

7. King's insertion of the world of The Dark Tower into the novel Insomnia seemed to impress you. Some critics have wondered if introducing Dark Tower elements to his non-Tower books will decrease their ability to stand on their own in years to come. Do you feel his increasing connectivity to that storyline (especially in Hearts In Atlantis) hinders or enhances his work as a whole?

The insertion of the world of THE DARK TOWER into INSOMNIA did not begin a process, it was merely another stage in the process that has been ongoing since the first appearance of poems like "The Dark Man" and novels like THE STAND. In a sense, there are fewer 'non-Tower' novels in King's canon than one might suspect. There is THE STAND, with its ubiquitous dark man against whom the light must battle. THE TALISMAN uses the Talisman itself as an image for the Tower - the nexus of all possible worlds. THE EYES OF THE DRAGON are simply part of the Tower quest. INSOMNIA suggests only that the evidences for crucial connections are becoming more apparent to King's characters. And that, I think, is one of the strengths of King's fictions as a whole. They are independent; they stand alone, unsupported by necessary connections to other books (although surface connections do frequently appear, as in GERALD'S GAME and DOLORES CLAIBORNE). Even when he tells the 'same' story, as in the dual novels THE REGULATORS and DESPERATION, he is clearly capable of treating that story from entirely different perspectives. And yet ... and yet underneath everything, there is the Epic world-view of the Tower, of the enduring and eternal struggle of Light against Darkness, of good against evil, of community against isolation, of compassion against greed. These are the primary themes in the Dark Tower series-but they are just as central to almost everything King has written. In fact, I would not be surprised if, eventually, assuming that King actually does conclude the Dark Tower novels as a discrete series, in some mystic way he reveals that ALL of his novels have been about the Quest for the Tower. That is speculation, of course; to this point the junctions have been more tantalizing than specific. But I do think that the epic sense that illuminates so much of King's storytelling is all part of a single imagined world. (How's that for arrogance on my part?)

8. Are there any plans to update or compile your early Starmont House books to include more recent works? For example, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on The Regulators, and how that book (and the increasingly complex Bachman "biography") relates to the other Bachman novels you discussed in Stephen King as Richard Bachman.

Actually, Overlook Connection Press has discussed the possibility with me. Part of the difficulty lies in the sheer time it would take to re-work the entire Starmont Series, especially in light of King's continuing productivity. I would like to do more with some of the later books, however, and hope to continue discussions about them.

9. After Horror Plum'd, what can your readers look forward to? Any upcoming projects, Card, King, or otherwise?

More bibliographies - which I particularly enjoy. Their meticulous nature is at times a welcomed relief from a continuing depression that I've been battling for the past few years, as well as for some physical debilities that are consuming more time and energy that I would wish. Constructing bibliographies is specific, definite, and precise work. And there have been relatively few attempts to establish accurate, scholarly bibliographies of many of our leading SF/F/Horror writers. I am talking with Overlook Connection Press about continuing books in the series, but not names have been definitely selected.

10. I'd like to thank you once again for taking the time to answer my questions. You've been an inspiration to me and to other King fans, and your influence on this website is immeasurable. One last question before we go, the same final question I ask everyone: What are your three favorite Stephen King works, and why? (And, hey, while I have you here, can you also name your three favorite Orson Scott Card works? Mine are Ender's Game, Xenocide, and Red Prophet.)

Okay. For King (not necessarily in order of preference): THE STAND (both versions for different reasons, but the unexpurgated version for its connections to king's worldview), IT; THE SHINING. Or maybe I should include THE TALISMAN and BAG OF BONES. Or maybe.... Selecting three is an exercise in futility!

For Card: same problem. When you are dealing with writers of their caliber, almost every book is noteworthy for specific and often contradictory reasons. But here goes: ENDER'S GAME, SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, LOST BOYS. Or maybe just: The Ender series, the Alvin Maker series, and the Homecoming series-but I guess that's cheating.

Thank you so much for giving me the chance to blather on like this, uninterrupted and unquestioned. It has been a delight. And thank you for your complimentary comments about my work. I firmly believe that the primary function of a critic/reviewer to impel readers back to the books, to challenge the readers with new possibilities, new perceptions, new facts that might somehow alter the reader's sense of the book. If my work on King and Card has done that - and more people find more pleasure in reading King and Card because of them - my function has been fulfilled.