A review of Lilja's Library, The World Of Stephen King
a guest review by George Beahm
From Carrie to Under the Dome, it's been 35 years in print for Stephen King. It's been a long and winding road for King, who, in the interim, has firmly cemented his place in popular culture and American literature, to the dismay of some of his critics who still feel his works are, in King's self-referential statement, "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries."
Don't you believe it.
King always had the goods. It's just that his critics will never acknowledge that. It's not possible, they assert, for any writer -- least of all Stephen King -- to be the bridge between popular culture and literature.
Kind sir: Please, then, explain what appears to be a contradiction: How can King be a popular success and critical success? One of his stories ("The Man in the Black Suit") won awards both in and out of the field: the World Fantasy Award and the O. Henry Award. In addition, King has regularly published both non-fiction and fiction in The New Yorker, celebrated by literary writers as a bastion for serious fiction.
That conundrum drives King's critics crazy.
In 2003, when King deservedly won a medal for "distinguished contribution to American Letters" from the National Book Award organization, his critics practically frothed at the mouth like rabid Saint Bernards. In his acceptance speech, King rightly castigated his critics -- many of whom were sitting in the audience, considerably chafed at his comments -- and put them in their places: "What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? ... There's a great deal of good stuff out there and not all of it is being done by writers whose work is regularly reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review."
King's award wasn't for a specific work of fiction. It was for a growing body of work from a writer who has consistently been out there, an advance scout far ahead of the main body, coming back with stories told in his inimitable prose. The long overdue award was also recognition for all the work King has done for 35 years to promote books, to protect them from the censors, for his considerable charity to the book community, and for much more.
The recognition is long overdue.
On a similar note, recognition to Hans-Ake Lilja, for his fan website, Lilja's Library, is long overdue.
There is a certain irony that the single best fan website in the world is not written by an American but by an ardent fan whose first language is obviously not English. Not that you'd know otherwise; his English is grammatically correct, even impeccable, and deliberate in a way that marks foreign usage: We here in the U.S. could use a lot more fans who write like Lilja, who in his refreshing reviews reminds me of what a baseball umpire should do: He calls them as he sees them.
For instance, in this book, he reprints interviews with film director Frank Darabont, whom he clearly admires. But in his review of Frank's film adaptation of The Mist, Lilja voices the criticism that "the only thing I'm not totally satisfied with is the special effects. The effects in the tentacle scene feel a little, for lack of a better word, unsynced. It's like the tentacles are over the victim instead of on him [italics mine]."
Now, Lilja's not a film director, nor has he ever worked in special effects, but he's a careful and conscientious viewer, and if he thinks the tentacles are "unsynced," it's because he truly believes it. He ain't whistling Dixie.
I love that. Whether he's right or wrong in his assessment, he's got the courage of his convictions to voice it. I love Lilja's honesty; he earns my respect thereby. Let's face it: Too many King "critics" -- meaning, self-enobling fans and pros alike who unjustifiably call themselves critics -- lack objectivity: No words of criticism about King or his work will ever pass their lips . . . or word processor.
To me, that invalidates their opinions because they aren't honest with themselves: They know on which side their bread is buttered, but that doesn't mean I want to read puff pieces from them. Like others putting down good money, I want the unvarnished truth, not PR. In the field of literary criticism, honesty really is the best policy.
Lilja's Library is a collection of non-fiction pieces written for his long-running website. A hefty 510 pages, it's going to be published as a hardback by Cemetery Dance, a small press that issues handsome editions, sturdily bound, for collectors who know, and appreciate, how books ought to be put together.
Approximately half of Lilja's book consists of interviews; the other half consists of Lilja's reviews of King's fiction and adaptations (film and audio).
I loved reading the interviews, because Lilja had access to practically everyone who's anyone, though a few obvious omissions jump out: no Douglas E. Winter, Tony Magistrale, Clive Barker, or Stuart Tinker. But just about everyone else I can think of is present: writers and artists and film stars and, well, you name it and they're probably there. It's a great cross-section of people whose lives and careers have crossed with King, who is himself well represented with two interviews. (Be nice to see a recent interview with King talking about Under the Dome, wouldn't it?)
As a long-time interviewer, I've subscribed to the notion that in order to get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions. Which, of course, explains why most mainstream interviews are so lacking. If you've got to ask King where he gets his ideas, how often he writes, does anything scare him, or how come so many bad movies have been made from his fiction, you're betraying your own ignorance.
King's mainstream interviewers just don't get "it."
Lilja gets it. He obviously is in awe of King, and was understandably nervous when he got King on the phone for the first time, but he still asked meaningful questions. So, for my money, the two interviews with King are illuminating and insightful. But, of course, there's more -- much more: I loved Frank Darabont's interviews, especially when I read how he lived on a shoestring budget so he could film "The Woman in the Room," at great personal cost: I had no idea Frank had voluntarily gone through such poverty in order to realize his craft as an artist. That one piece of interviewing revealed Frank's character in a way that nothing else could have: He's a survivor type. (The mainstream interview would likely have asked: "So, what's it like to work with Stephen King?" Pish and posh!)
I would have gladly paid $40 just for the interviews.
The reviews, as I mentioned before, are pretty much right-on. Lilja is a King expert and if he says something is good, you can take that to the bank; and if he creebs and grouses a bit, and he does, you can take that to the bank, too.
The bottom line: If you have more than a casual interest in King, this book is a worthy addition to your bookshelf, especially if you don't want to scroll through pages of back-lit text online (and I don't): I welcome the opportunity to sit down and browse this book, reading an interview here, a review there, and adding to my small body of knowledge about the big man in Bangor.
I would be remiss if I were not to mention the wondrous art by Glenn Chadbourne, who is best known for his detailed, Virgil Finlay-like art that strike me as being beautiful grotesqueries. As much as I love his pen-and-ink work, I absolutely adore his color work: The seaside landscape Glenn rendered for the PS Publishing edition of The Colorado Kid shows a side of his art that most people never realized, that he is a pretty damned good painter in his own right, just as King is a pretty damned good wordsmith in his own write.
Do I have any complaints about the book? Well, a few minor beefs, still correctable before the book goes to press: I'd want to know a little more about each interviewee, in a prefatory paragraph that gives me a better sense of who the person is and what he's published/acted in/worked on. I'd also want an index to the reviews, so I can look them up in the back and easily flip to the right page in the book, instead of scrolling a long list on the table of contents page.
That's it, though. No more complaints. As I said: minor beefs, and easily correctable.
I don't speak Swedish, alas, so I had to look it up online and hope someone else's interpretation would be accurate. Thus, to Lilja, I say: Bra gjort! It means, simply, "well done."
Lilja's website is the #1 King fan website in the world, and after reading this book, you'll know why.
Now, I do, too.
George Beahm, author of The Stephen King Companion, America's Best-Loved Boogeyman,, and Stephen King From A to Z, recently published art book from Centipede Press, Knowing Darkness: Artists Inspired by Stephen King. Visit his site here!