The only thing Stephen King loves more than killing off his characters is telling you he’s about to kill off his characters. From Pet Sematary to It, he is the master of making his readers fall in love with a character, only to turn around and announce their imminent deaths, saying they only have two months to live, or that nobody would see them alive again. It’s such a signature Stephen King move that it’s become a bit of a meme in the Constant Reader corner of the internet.
In this week’s chapters we get plenty of classic Stephen King foreshadowing. First, Roland and Eddie notice a dark aura surrounding the fictionalized version of King, which Roland identifies as a todana or “deathbag.” He points out that it’s still faint, but it means that King has been “marked” for death (p. 284).
Eddie saw it then for the first time, very dim—a contrast to the sun, perhaps. A dusty black shadow, something swaddled around the man. Dim. Barely there. But there. Like the darkness you saw hiding behind things when you traveled todash. Was that it? Eddie didn’t think so.–Song of Susannah, p. 266
Later, Callahan feels certain that he, Jake, and Oy are going to walk into the clearing at the end of the path “three abreast” when they enter the Dixie Pig (p. 322). He doesn’t seem bothered by it, he is glad to have an opportunity to redeem himself and quickly comes to terms with the knowledge of his imminent death. He even gives Jake his last rites, and the cool confidence with which Jake accepts seems to confirm the Pere’s intuition.
After that (actually before, if we’re talking chronologically), Susannah/Mia stops at the same street corner outside the Dixie Pig and King hints that death is right around the corner for her. As she listens to the busker play “Man of Constant Sorrow,” she wonders to herself if it might be her “death-song” and like Callahan, accepts her ka (p.329).
The accuracy of these ominous beats of foreshadowing are varied. Callahan’s prediction of his own death turns out to be spot on, but Jake and Oy survive at least a while longer. It turns out Susannah was not listening to her death-song, but Mia was. And we know that the ka-tet goes on to save Stephen King from his would-be-fatal van encounter, so the foreshadowing of the todana turned out to be a false alarm… But we also know that nobody is immortal, and eventually that black aura is going to catch up with him. In that sense, there was nothing false about it.
It’s not difficult to understand why King employs this literary device so often. Most of the time, he uses it to get a plot boiling, enticing you to turn the page. Other times, like with the fictional King’s deathbag, or with the heartbreaking car crash at the end of From A Buick 8, he uses foreshadowing as a misdirect. But is it simpler than that? Is it possible King drops these little foreshadowing bombs not out of a sense of narrative strategy, but intuition?
That’s certainly what the fictional version of King would have us believe. “It just comes,” he tells Roland and Eddie, “It blows into me—that’s the good part—and then it comes out when I move my fingers. Never from the head. Comes out the navel, or somewhere.” (p. 275). To hear him tell it, you would think King sits down at his keyboard, blacks out, and wakes up with a few thousand words added to his manuscript.
“I don’t like the New Agers . . . the crystal-wavers . . . all the it-don’t-matter, turn-the-pagers . . . but they call it channeling, and that’s . . . how it feels . . . like something in a channel . . .”– Song of Susannah, p. 275
Now, I would never deign to compare myself with Sai King, but as a writer I know that this is kind of bullshit. Writing is a skill, and Stephen King is so good that he might be able to trick us into thinking it’s more than that, but it isn’t. Stories don’t magically flow through King’s navel, they are the result of hard work. When King decides to add a bit of foreshadowing at the end of a chapter, it’s the same as a carpenter deciding to use nails instead of screws for a certain project. As a writer I know it’s as simple as that.
Yet, as a fan, as a Constant Reader… I want to believe that it is intuition. And I kind of do. Despite my knowledge of how the sausage gets made, I have to let myself believe in the romance of it all. I still get goosebumps every time I read the fake diary entries at the end of this book because I somehow am still able to convince myself that they are real, that this is all real, and that in itself is magic, isn’t it?
I know it’s not complete bullshit because I’ve experienced it myself, when a story—or the solution to your story problem—just appears in your head like a present on Christmas morning. In On Writing, King refers to this feeling as “the over-logic,” or “thinking above the curve.” It doesn’t happen often but it sure is euphoric when it does. I’m not sure this qualifies as acting as a prophet of Gan, but I have to imagine that’s pretty much what King meant when he said “that’s the good part.”
For me, it’s both. King’s foreshadowings are simultaneously the product of a skilled worker doing their job, and the instinctive flourish of Gan’s apostle. And I believe King agrees that it’s both, because if he didn’t believe in this vessel-for-the-story nonsense at least a little bit, he never would have written a five thousand page story about it. At the same time, the fact that the fictional King needs to be hypnotized before vocalizing any of this, shows he’s fully aware of how preposterous and pretentious it all sounds.
To me, that is the definition of craft. When a carpenter doesn’t have to think about why nails will be better than screws, but they do it because they know it’s right; when a writer feels it’s right to add that one extra sentence at the end of a chapter, without thinking about why; when the basic process of completing a task converges with intuition and creativity, that is when a trade evolves into a craft.
King is a craftsman, perhaps one of the best on the planet. If you’re anything like me and aspire to reach even a fraction of his success, remember that creating art is hard work and you need to learn how to use the tools and do the job, but don’t make the mistake of thinking there is no magic in it at all. The “over-logic” is out there waiting for you, and if you can reach that space between skill and instinct, maybe you can find it, and maybe one day you can share it with your own Constant Readers.