Stephen King quote from Salem’s Lot: sensory processing, symbolic mental movies, ego simulacra

I consider Stephen King to be the most ingenious fiction writer of this generation, even if he (and some of his books) are fucked in the head. I can’t really throw stones on that count even if I’ve never written a book (IT) where 12-year-olds solve their problems by having sex.

He seems to have much more consistent access to the creative mindset which allows him simulate situations (not as he plans, but as if they were actually happening) as mental movies, the principles and details of which he explains as he goes. He is also very good at writing internal monologues for extremely varied characters, from housewives to five-year-old boys to dogs (and even the occasional inert object). When he really gets into his writing trance, I’d trust his artistic observations about reality with 99% certainty.

This post is going to have a couple of huge quotes from a scene in Salem’s Lot. All you really need to know for background is that the 12-yo Mark has been captured by Straker, a man working for the vampire Mark had been trying to kill by putting a stake through his heart during the day. Straker has announced his intention to tie Mark up until nightfall, when his vampire boss will wake up and bite him in the neck.

There are a few very interesting bits I want to highlight here: the processor overclocking under extreme stress (manifests as very rapid integration of sensory information into a coherent narrative), the rapid symbolic shorthand for visualizing outcomes (see also the automatthew quote), and the appearance of the simulacrum (see also the metacognitive observer in my marijuana post). With this in mind, I want to emphasize the importance of the big picture when thinking about these phenomena in holistic context. Who knows what combination of causes could have produced these? I doubt even Stephen King could tell you. The situation, the emotions, the fear, Mark’s character and personality- take away any one of these, and the mental phenomenon could strengthen, or weaken, or disappear altogether.

I’ll bold the important bits for people who want to skim. Please forgive typos, my keyboard is fading.

As Mark pushed open the door and stepped into the room where Hubert Marsten had committed suicide, something odd seemed to happen in his mind. The fear did not fall away from it, but seemed to stop acting as a brake on his thoughts, jamming all productive signals. His thoughts began to flicker past with amazing speed, not in words or precisely in images, but in a kind of symbolic shorthand. He felt like a light bulb that has suddenly received a surge of power from no known source.

The room itself was utterly prosaic. the wallpaper hung in strips, showing the white plaster and sheet rock beneath. The floor was heavily dusted with time and plaster, but there was only one set of footprints in it, suggesting someone had come up once, looked around, and left again. There were two stacks of magazines, a cast-iron cot with no spring or mattress, and a small tin plate with a faded Currier & Ives design that had once blocked the stove hole in the chimney. The window was shuttered, but enough light filtered dustily through the broken slats to make Mark think there might be an hour of daylight left. There was an aura of old nastiness about the room.

It took perhaps five seconds to open the door, see these things, and cross to the center of the room where Straker told him to stop. In that short period, his mind raced along three tracks and saw three possible outcomes to the situation he found himself in.

On one, he suddenly sprinted across the room toward the shuttered window and tried to crash through both glass and shutter like a Western movie hero, taking the drop to whatever lay below with blind hope. In one mental eye he saw himself crashing through only to fall onto a rusty pile of junked farm machinery, twitching away the last seconds of his life impaled on blunt harrow blades like a bug on a pin. In the other eye he saw himself crashing through the glass and into the shutter which trembled but did not break. He saw Straker pulling him back, his clothes torn, his body lacerated and bleeding in a dozen places.

On the second track, he saw Straker tie him up and leave. He saw himself trussed on the floor, saw the light fading, saw his struggles become more frenzied (but just as useless), and heard, finally, the steady tread on the stairs of one who was a million times worse than Straker.

On the third track, he saw himself using a trick he had read about last summer in a book on Houdini. Houdini had been a famous magician who had escaped jail cells, chained boxes, bank vaults, steamer trunks thrown into rivers. He could get out of ropes, police handcuffs, and Chinese finger-pullers. And one of the things the book said he did was hold his breath and tighten his hands into fists when a volunteer from the audience was tying him up. You bulged your thighs and forearms and neck muscles, too. If your muscles were big, you had a little slack when you relaxed them. The trick then was to relax completely, and go at your escape slowly and surely, never letting panic hurry you up. Little by little, your body would give you sweat for grease, and that helped too. The book made it sound very easy.

Ed: Skipping over the part where he chooses door number three and lets Straker tie him up.

He left, slamming the door behind him. A key rattled in the lock. And as his feet descended the stairs, Mark let out his breath and relaxed his muscles with a great, whooping sigh.

The ropes holding him loosened- a little.

He lay moveless, collecting himself. His mind was still flying with that same unnatural, exhilerating speed. From his position, he looked across the swelled, uneven floor to the iron cot frame. He could see the wall beyond it. The wallpaper was peeled away from that section and lay beneath the cot frame like a discarded snakeskin. He focused on a small section of the wall and examined it closely. He flushed everything else from his mind. The book on Houdini said that concentration was all-important. No fear or taint of panic must be allowed in the mind. The body must be completely relaxed. And the escape must take place in the mind before a single finger did so much as twitch. Every step must exist concretely in the mind.

He looked at the wall, and minutes passed.

The wall was white and bumpy, like an old drive-in movie screen. Eventually, as his body relaxed to its greatest degree, he began to see himself projected there, a small boy wearing a blue T-shirt and Levi’s jeans. The boy was on his side, arms pulled behind him, wrists nestling the small of the back above the buttocks. A noose looped around his neck, and any hard struggling would tighten that running slipknot inexorably until enough air was cut off to black out the brain.

He looked at the wall.

The figure there had begun to move cautiously, although he himself lay perfectly still. He watched all the movements of the simulacrum raptly. He had achieved a level of concentration necessary to tche Indian fakirs and yogis, who are able to contemplate their toes or the tips of their noses for days, the state of certain mediums who levitate tables in a state of unconsciousness or extrude long tendrils of teleplasm from the nose, the mouth, the fingertips. His state was close to sublime. He did not think of Straker or the fading daylight. He no longer saw the gritty floor, the cot frame, or even the wall. He only saw the boy, a perfect figure which went through a tiny dance of carefully controlled muscles.

He looked at the wall.

And at last he began to move his wrists in half circles, toward each other. At the limit of each, the backs of his hands pressed together. The loops holding them had loosened a tiny bit more.

He stopped.

After a moment had passed, he began to flex his thumbs against his palms and press his fingers together in a wriggling motion. His face was utterly expressionless, the plaster face of a department store dummy.

Five minutes passed. His hands were sweatingfreely now. The extreme level of his concentration had put him in partial control of his own sympathetic nervous system, another device of yogis and fakirs, and he had, unknowingly, gained some control over his body’s involuntary functions. More sweat trickled out from his pores than his careful movements could account for. His hands had become oily…

Ed: There’s an involved bit of description involving the escape which I’m skipping over. Just as he gets free, someone comes up the stairs:

When the door opened, Mark was standing behind it with the bed leg upraised, like a wooden Indian with a tomahawk.

“Young master, I’ve come to-”

He saw the empty coils of rope and froze for perhaps one full second in utter surprise. He was halfway through the door.

To Mark, things seemed to have slowed to the speed of a football maneuver seen in instant replay. He seemed to have minutes rather than bare seconds to aim at the one-quarter skull circumference visible beyond the edge of the door.

He brought the leg down with both hands, not as hard as he could- he sacrificed some force for better aim. It struck Straker just above the temple, as he started to turn to look behind the door. His eyes, open wide squeezed shut in pain. Blood flew from the scalp would in an amazing spray.

About Aeoli Pera

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