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Stephen King is 70

21 September 2017

Stephen King was born on 21 September 1947, and has been writing for about 60 years. I certainly haven’t read everything he wrote, but his 70th birthday seems a good time to reflect on some of his writing that I have read.

Two things that strike me about his writing is the variety of genres he writes in, and also the wide variety of quality. I find some of his books pretty good, and some absolutely atrocious.

The first book of his that I read was Needful Things. I’d seen some of his books in bookshops before, and hadn’t been tempted by them, but in 1992 Needful Things was new, and I read the blurb, and it looked interesting, so I bought it and read it, and liked it so much that I began to look out for some of his other books. I still still think it is one of his best books. It was just as well that that was the first one I read, because if I had picked up one of his inferior books, like The Tommyknockers, I might never have looked at another.

Stephen King is probably best-known for his supernatural horror stories, and I find that is the genre he is most at home in, and where his writing is at its best, though even there I find the quality varies enormously.

When I first started reading Stephen King’s books, I thought they were nihilistic. There are evil powers and evil creatures whose sole characteristic appears to be malice and malevolence. These affect the lives of ordinary people living ordinary lives in the everyday world. Another author who writes of supernatural powers breaking into the everyday world is Charles Williams. But in Williams’s books the evil forces are part of a cosmic battle between good and evil, part of a universe in which their existence makes some kind of sense.

But in Stephen King’s horror novels the evil critters make no sense at all. They are just evil, and they are just there. There is no attempt to account for the origin of evil or the existence of such creatures. It is enough that they should exist and be malevolent.

In most of Stephen King’s horror stories the battle is not between good humans and evil monsters. The battle between good and evil takes place entirely in the human heart. The central point is not the origin of evil, or its significance, but how people react to evil when they encounter it.

So in Needful Things people are offered something they really want, but the price is to play a rather nasty prank on someone else. In that sense it is an intensely moral book, a parable of how human greed can and often does destroy the lives of many people.

I think my favourite among Stephen King’s books is Pet Sematary. In part that was because the evil critter in it is the Wendigo, which featured in one of the best horror stories I’ve ever read, The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood (full text available here).

Pet Sematary is Stephen King’s zombie story, though he doesn’t use the word zombie in it, perhaps because zombies belong to another culture. But it is not the Wendigo or the zombies that are at the centre of the story, but the temptations of the human heart. In that sense it is like some of the writings of the Desert Fathers about demonic assaults and temptations, transferred from the desert to American suburbia.

Though I thought King handled the Wendigo and the zombies well, I can’t say the same of his vampire story, ‘Salem’s Lot. For anyone who has read Bram Stoker’s Dracula the plot was entirely predictable. The only good vampire story I’ve read, apart from Bram Stoker’s original, is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

One of King’s non-horror stories I liked was The girl who loved Tom Gordon. It’s about a girl who is lost in the woods.

Human beings are sociable creatures. At the beginning of the book of Genesis God says, “It is not good for man to be alone”.  And so for a child lost in the woods there is a need to find the way home. Even when your family is bickering and nagging till you feel you want to get away from them, when they are not there you miss them.

And human beings, being social, are very rarely alone in finding food. Even hunter-gatherers work in groups, and so for a girl lost in the woods, finding food becomes a problem. So this story is about human endurance in loneliness and adversity. The world around is not malevolent, but, like the evil critters in the horror stories, it is just there. The challenge is to find the way home and to keep alive for long enough to get there.

Spoiler Alert

If you haven’t read It, and might want to, the following section contains plot spoilers, so read no further.

One of the most disappointing of King’s books, for me at any rate, was It.

I generally liked the story but it has a disappointing ending. While the adults of the town go about their normal lives, the children of the town, or some of them at least, know that something evil lurks in the sewers. So in addition to the normal problems of pre-teen children in the 9-12 age group, they are aware of something else.

King’s novels are weakest (in my view), when he resorts to space aliens, as he does in It and The Tommyknockers. King is generally good at horror and fantasy, but less good at science fiction.

I suppose C.S. Lewis disabused me of the notion that space aliens are necessarily evil – evil travels from earth to outer space, rather than vice versa. King’s best writing is where ordinary people are confronted by extraordinary evil in this world. And that is where It falls short. His characters and their pubescent angst about sex and bullying and all the rest are realistic indeed, but the ending, where the evil turns out to be an incomprehensible creature from outer space, and salvation is found in a gang bang, made for a weak ending, for me.

For another take on It see this article by Brenton Dickieson: Why I Didn’t Finish IT as a Teen.

Having said that, I should perhaps qualify  my remark that Stephen King did not write good science fiction. I didn’t like his stories where the evil creatures turned out to be space aliens rather than supernatural evil powers roaming the earth. But his The Jaunt is one of the best (and most horrific) science fiction stories I have read, with nary a space alien in sight.

The nihilistic supernatural evil creatures and powers that populate his books, nihilistic as they may seem on the surface, seem to be a necessary foil to his human protagonists’ attempts to deal with them. Where they are absent, as in Gerald’s game or Misery I found myself bored silly, and unable to finish the books.


20 September 2017


It is almost too ridiculous to mention, but some Internet sites actually use this image, from the Serbian Vysoki Decani Monastery, as “proof” of early visitations by aliens from space.  They tell the gullible that the two odd figures at far upper left and right are “flying saucers” piloted by space men, with one following the other across the sky.

Anyone who knows the basics of Eastern Orthodox iconography, however, should recognize that those two images are just stylized representations of the sun (at left) and the moon (at right).

The sun and moon have long been common additions to icons of the Crucifixion, and this is very obviously a Crucifixion icon.

At left is the sun, which is commonly personified by placing a face within it, or sometimes, as here, the body as well.  You can see that aside from the rays emanating at left, the image of the…

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Reflections of Graham Greene

16 September 2017

The Reflections: 1923-1988Reflections: 1923-1988 by Graham Greene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are three 20th-century authors that I have thought peculiarly Christian. They are G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. There are several others that I consider ordinarily Christian, like Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and a few more. But the three first-named all converted to the Roman Catholic Church in adult life, and to do such a thing meant, at least to my teenage mind, that they had given a lot of thought to the Christian faith and had made a serious life-changing decision about it. I thought that even before I had read many of their books.

Did their writing warrant the prejudice with which I approached it? G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy certainly did. Evelyn Waugh’s The loved one was as funny as the English II lecturer said it was, in an off-the-cuff remark. I never got to take English II, but a lot of us attended the lectures at Wits by a guy called Cronin because his lectures were far more entertaining and interesting than any others in the university, and were regularly attended even by architecture and engineering students.

The rather dour and humourless English I lecturer once reproached me for my prejudice when I wrote in an essay that I thought William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was about Original Sin, and he commented that I should not approach the book with preconceived ideas. I thought that I hadn’t,. because I only came to that conclusion after reading the book. But I certainly approached Chesterton, Waugh and Greene with preconceived ideas. A friend recommended Graham Greene’s The power and the glory, though, and it went way beyond any preconceived ideas I might have had.

I’ve read other books by all three authors, but this one, a collection of essays, op-ed articles, reviews and other miscellaneous pieces, is one of the best. It’s taken a long time to read, because it is not something to be read at a sitting, but rather savoured, one piece at a time. I’m rather sad that I have to return it to the library, I’d like to have a copy to dip into occasionally, as bed-time reading. Many of the pieces are very short, two to three pages. They are arranged chronologically, and as I read further my respect for Graham Greene as a writer deepened.

Because the pieces are arranged chronologically it is easy to see how Greene develops as a writer. Part of it is just a matter of growing up and maturing. When he wrote his early pieces he was not much older than I was when I wrote my essay on William Golding, and I criticised one of them quite strongly in another blog post here Pandering to colour prejudice | Notes from underground. That was written in 1923.

But it is not just maturity. It was after his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in 1927 that there is a marked change in his writing, a change in viewpoint. It was Søren Kierkegard, the Danish Protestant existentialist, who wrote an entire book with the title Point of View for my Work as an Author, and Reflections helps to explain Graham Greene’s point of view as an author.

He was very well-travelled, and wrote about South America, the Caribbean, Russia, China, Vietnam and many other places. A lot of his novels are set in the places he visited, The Quiet American, which I have not read, but want to, is set in the early stages of the Vietnam war, His contemporary articles in this book show a great deal of insight into the nature of that conflict, and perhaps both his reporting and his fiction helped to inspire The Ugly American, written about a later stage of the war.

His descriptions of Cuba before and after the revolution that overthrew the dictator Batista are also very interesting. While not uncritical of Castro’s rule, Green notes the enormous improvements that had taken place, and contrasts it with Haiti, a state run by a gang boss and a bunch of thugs.

Several of the pieces in the book are forewords he wrote for books by other authors, which had the effect of making me want to read some of the books. He described some of his own personal disasters — a trip to China in which he managed to antagonise most of his fellow travellers, and a film script for his worst film which had to be so mangled by the requirements of the British censors that the story was rendered almost meaningless.

One essay that I thought particularly brilliant was The Virtue of Disloyalty, and I thought so much for Jonathan Haidt’s moral compass. In the essay Greene criticises Shakespeare for being too loyal to the powers that be, but it also serves as a good refutation of Jonathan Haidt’s view of morality. If you don’t know who Jonathan Haidt is, see here: The moral high ground — or is it? | Notes from underground

And I rather like this extract from an address he gave in Moscow in 1987 at the time of glasnost and perestroika:

Talk is often an escape from action — instead of a prelude to action –and big abstract words have to flow too far and too fast. I feel incapable, really, of summarizing some of the excellent and long essays which were read in my section. It would do injustice to the authors, and my memory as an old man is getting weak.

Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Quaker factor

7 September 2017

We’ve been meeting for our monthly literary coffee klatsch for more than a year now, having quite wide-ranging discussions on Christianity and literature. We have discussed a variety of authors and works, with quite deep discussions on G.K. Chesteron (first Anglican, then Roman Catholic), and several others, but Quakers haven’t figured much in our discussions, so today Janneke Weidema spoke a little about the history of the Society of Friends (Quakers). It was quite fascinating, and we stayed about twice as long was we usually do.

She began with vocabulary. Quakers, like most other groups, have some terms that have a special meaning for them, and there are some special uses. “Elder”, for example, is a verb, exemplified by a notice on a parking space reserved for the disabled, to the effect that anyone else who parked there would “be eldered”.

There is an emphasis on quietness and peacefulness, and the group discerning a proper course of action. This was in marked contrast with our TGIF meeting last Friday, where we were asked to share our vision of a new South Africa without the rubbish, and then to think of what we personally were going to do to bring it about. There was a great emphasis on action and activism, and Janneke contrasted this with the Quaker attitude of “Don’t just do something; sit there.”

In southern Africa, however, Quakers are quite active in giving training in nonviolence, especially in prisons.

She also mentioned a rabbi who meditated on the fact that most laws in Judaism were passive; the emphasis was on avoidance, things that one should not do. The one exception is peace. We are to “seek peace and pursue it”. And that is very familiar to us; it is from Psalm 33/34, which we sing every Sunday. Verse 15 reads: Shun evil and do good: seek peace and pursue it. It’s worth thinking about what that means.

But central to the Quaker approach is Light, with a capital L. This is God’s light in our hearts, and as she spoke about it I was struck by how familiar it sounded to me as an Orthodox Christian, because one of the central themes of Orthodoxy is the Uncreated Light, the light of the Transfiguration, and it seemed very similar to the Quaker approach. And a lot of the Quaker thinking seemed to have an affinity with Orthodox hesychasm.

So much for the general approach of Quakers, but what about literature?

Janneke specifically mentioned two books that are of the top of the Quaker reading list: The Journal of George Fox and The Journal of John Woolson. She read several extracts from them, and said that George Fox, in particular, assumed that people would be familiar with the Bible, not used for prooftexting, but in a more holistic way. John Woolson’s writing was more in line with Enlightenment thinking.

John Woolson became a lawyer, and when people asked him to draw up wills for them, he urged them not to bequeath slaves to their heirs, but to free them instead. If they would not do so, he declined to draw up their wills.

I had been under the impression that Hannah More was a Quaker, because, like John Wookson, she was concerned with the abolition of slavery, but apparently she was not Quaker, but Evangelical. She did, however, make her mark on literary history.

Quaker WitnessQuaker Witness by Irene Allen

In addition to books about Quaker beliefs and practices, there are also works of fiction by Quaker authors, including whodunits like this one. It is one of a series of four, described by one reviewer as a Quaker Miss Marple.

There is also a book written by Quakers in southern Africa, Living adventurously, a compilation of writings of Quakers in different parts of the subcontinent. Janneke said she would bring some copies along to our next meeting, in case anyone would like one.

Beyond the rubbish

2 September 2017

Yesterday morning at TGIF we had a strange discussion on the future South Africa we would like to see.

Most of those present were white Christians. I don’t know how representative the group was of white Christians in South Africa as a whole but the response of this group was rather discouraging.

The mandate for the group discussion was:

At last week’s TGIF, Mahlatse Mashua used the thought-provoking metaphor of a smelly overflowing dustbin in his analogy of the South African household. Often our conversation is stuck in arguing with each other about who was responsible for putting what rubbish into the bin or who should be carrying it out. This Friday, we’ll invest some time imagining what a South Africa without the overflowing bin could look like.

Usually, we are good at identifying what it is that we do not want, what is evil, what needs to be removed. The challenge is to see beyond the absence of the negative and to envisage the presence of the positive. What would a just, moral and restituted South Africa look like in practical ways? How would everyday life experiences change? Are we able to dream a little about “overcoming evil with good”? Join facilitator-coach Vera Marbach as she leads this discussion and be prepared for interaction.

We discussed this in pairs, and I tried to take the mandate seriously, to “see beyond the absence of the negative and to envisage the presence of the positive. What would a just, moral and restituted South Africa look like in practical ways?”

So, thinking of the school classrooms we worship in in Mamelodi and Soshanguve, I said I would like to see every child in South Africa have the opportunity to go to a well equipped well-maintained school with competent teachers.

I hoped that others would come up with other examples and that we could build up a picture of the kind of South Africa we would like to see.

But it seemed to me, from the things that people reported from the discussion, that nobody else even tried to take the mandate seriously. Most of the things came up with were

  1. negative — ie the absence of things we don’t like
  2. abstract — ie not “practical ways”

People spoke of things like “no guilt”, which emphasises the negative, or “a sense of accountability”, which is abstract rather than practical.

By saying that I tried to think of something practical and concrete (as we were asked to do), I’m not trying to set myself apart from the rest of the people taking part in the discussion and to say that the others didn’t get the point and I did. If you look at other posts in this blog you will find plenty of negative thinking, and complaints about things that I don’t like about the way things are and the way things were, and the overflowing rubbish bin of South African society that Mahlatse Mashua spoke about it.

And when we were asked to envisage the kind of South Africa we would like to see, without the rubbish, I found it hard to do. My first thought, on reading the mandate in the e-mail a couple of days before, was that it was too hard for me, and I would simply go along and listen to everyone else’s vision of a new and improved South Africa, and draw inspiration from that.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18), and we in South Africa seem to have lost our vision and lost our way.

When looking at present problems in the country, in which the ANC and the country as a whole seem to have been captured by the greedy and the corrupt, some like to point out that the ANC was never perfect, and that is true. No political organisation 9r party is perfect, in either its leaders, members or policies. But there were those heady days just before and after 1994 when there was vision, when anything seemed possible, when people were asked what kind of society they would like to see, and shared ideas. In those days, whatever else there was, there was vision and there was hope.

But yesterday’s TGIF seems to indicate that it is not just the ANC that has lost its vision and its way, but ordinary white Christians as well. We all, black and white, Christian and non-Christian, seem to have lost not just our vision, but even our capacity for envisaging a better future.

When there is no vision, we simply react to negative stimuli (no guilt). We want an absence of things that make us uncomfortable rather than the presence of things that contribute to “a better life for all” (as the ANC’s 1994 election slogan put it).



Sue’s Book Reviews: Of Wheels and Witches (by Stephen Hayes)

27 August 2017

Here’s a quote from Sue F’s review of my children’s book Of Wheels and Witches.

The latter part of the book is fast-paced and more violent than I’m comfortable with. This is not an escapist unrealistic adventure story of the Enid Blyton variety. It’s all too real, even gory in places, and as such I wouldn’t want a child of nine or ten to read it. Moreover, the children are very young to have been allowed out on their own in such dangerous circumstances; the adults seem to think nothing of letting them ride about the countryside, even when it’s clear that there’s the potential for tragedy. The characters are drawn skilfully, and it was easy to identify with them.
Source: Sue’s Book Reviews: Of Wheels and Witches (by Stephen Hayes)

Most authors (I imagine) are pleased to have reviews of their books, whether the reviews good or bad, because in most cases, provided they are neither fulsome nor malicious, reviews help one to improve one’s writing. Sue reviews quite a lot of children’s books, so I was glad to see her review.

Her review also raises an issue that interests me — that of violence and danger in children’s literature. I’ve mentioned this in a couple of online forums, but perhaps a blog (in its literal role as a web log) is a better medium for comparing things with links to different web pages for reference.

One of the books I have read recently, The mystery of the Solar Wind (my review here) had some scenes that I regarded as too violent. I recently re-read Alan Garner’s children’s books, and this time was struck by how violent they are — they end in scenes of rather confused violence, and those were the parts of the books that I least enjoyed.

The ending is the most difficult party of a story to write, and so many books I’ve enjoyed seem to have anticlimactic endings — Alan Garner’s books are not alone in that. And, in his review of Of Wheels and Witches, David Levey was most critical of the ending. If Alan Garner’s books ended too violently, perhaps mine did not end violently enough?

Anyway, thanks to Sue for raising that issue and giving me something to think about.

Another thing that struck me, after reading E. Nesbit’s Five children and It yesterday, is that most of the best children’s literature is in the fantasy genre, and the stories from the past that have been most reprinted and still available today are in that genre. But that is another story, and there’s more on that here: Children’s literature: fantasy or moral realism? | Khanya

Gaps in Scholarship on C.S. Lewis and other Wade Authors

15 August 2017

A few weeks ago I read a commentary on C.S. Lewis’s children’s novel Prince Caspian, which I found very helpful. You can see my review here. Now the librarian of the Marion Wade Center in Wheation, Illinois, USA, which has a large collection of material on C.S. Lewis and related authors, is appealing for people to write more such works.

Critical / annotated versions of books are a great way for a reader to have an experienced / informed guide walk them through a text. Such books contain notes in the margins or footnotes that provide context to historical references which most readers won’t know, explain complex concepts that might be outside of a reader’s range of experiences, and also interesting facts about the text like how an example is understood in British culture, or where an idea may have come from the author’s personal life. These notes are like a wise companion along the reading road, and that guidance helps readers finish the reading journey and get the most out of all the roadside attractions and truths along the way.Examples of some books in this category include: The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis, annotated by David C. Downing; and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, annotated by Craig M. Kibler.

Source: Mind the Gap: Where Scholarship on C.S. Lewis and other Wade Authors needs some Filling-In – Sunlit Fields

I thought the one on Prince Caspian was particularly well done. One doesn’t normally think of children’s books as requiring critical commentaries, but perhaps children’s books written by Oxford dons are an exception. Fifty years ago I read The Annotated Alice and found it very useful.

The Prince Caspian one is a commentary rather than an annotated edition, but since I had read the book several times, and once fairly recently, the commentary was sufficient to call to mind any parts of the story I had forgotten.

One of the other authors mentioned in the Sunlit Fields blog post is G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. Something that I found quite useful for that was The London Heretics. One can appreciate a lot of what Chesterton was writing about in a general sense, but more than a century later it is easy to forget that he was referring to the doctrines of specific people who were well known in his day, but almost forgotten now.

So I hope there are scholars who will respond to this appeal. I might almost be tempted to do so myself, but then think that it would require a great deal of research, including, no doubt, some at the Marion Wade Center itself, and that even the fare to travel there is quite beyond my means. And that makes me wonder how anyone at all can afford to do such research. Blogging’s cheaper, and we still have our literary coffee klatsch once a month, which is just over the hill from us.