Book of the Month Club • 2000 • 434 pages
A Collection Critique
Released in conjunction with On Writing, Secret Windows collects nearly two-dozen essays, short stories, and speeches on the craft of writing. While it's a catchall collection, as the later Stephen King Goes to the Movies would be, Secret Windows coalesces around a far more interesting and cohesive theme, providing a unique look into underrepresented aspects of King's vast output.
First, King offers two stories - "Jumper" and "Rush Call" - that had originally appeared in his brother's self-published newsletter, Dave's Rag. Written while King was between the ages of twelve and thirteen, these stories present readers with a rare look into King's juvenilia, a segment of his writing from which he has often tried to distance himself. These stories provide a neat fictional counterpart to the early chapters of On Writing, in which King details his genesis as a writer and his struggles with publication. Only one earlier King work has survived into print, the 1956 short story, "Jhonathan & the Witchs," published in the First Words anthology in 1993. Neither this, nor the rediscovered 1960 short story "The Killer" (published in 1994, in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine) have ever been collected in a Stephen King anthology, making "Jumper" and "Rush Call" accessible, crucial looks into King's early style.
While it may seem somewhat absurd to compare these adolescent stories to King's later, more polished work, the hints of the writer King will mature into are tantalizing. "Jumper," a precursor to King's later story, "The Ledge," is King's first experiment with serialized storytelling, published over three issues of Dave's Rag. Later in college, King would publish a Western parody titled Slade in installments in the Maine Campus; in his professional career, The Plant, The Green Mile, and both the stories of The Gunslinger and the larger Dark Tower series would be published serially. While the story itself seems obviously the work of a young writer finding his voice, several sentences ("Once again the mad light danced in his eyes," for example) stand out as impressively realized. Familiar, too, is King's fun with names - the titular character in "Jumper" is named Steppes - as is his ongoing habit of representing colloquialisms phonetically ("Ga wan" for "go on.")
"Rush Call" is somewhat less impressive, King's take on A Christmas Carol. Despite its simplistic storytelling and furtive stabs at characterization, the story reads like a rehearsal for King's later seminal tale "The Breathing Method," in Different Seasons. Beyond the use of Christmas as a pivotal plot point, details such as a gruesome car crash and a doctor summoned to the scene to operate under bizarre conditions are fantastically predictive.
From here, Secret Windows provides a chronological showcase for King's thoughts on writing throughout his career. Some of these pieces are already readily accessible: "Horror Fiction," the centerpiece of Secret Windows, is a lengthy excerpt from Danse Macabre. "Two Past Midnight," the excellent introduction to the novella "Secret Window, Secret Garden" from Four Past Midnight, provides this collection with its title; the particularly illuminating "Foreword to Night Shift" provides a fascinating insight into King's earliest career as a novelist. "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet," previously featured in Skeleton Crew, is one of King's best short stories, providing a capstone to that earlier collection and summing up many of the themes and interests that fascinated King during his most popular period here.
Of particular significance, though, are the rarer pieces, many of which parallel the thoughts King would explore further in On Writing. Most exciting about these pieces is that they were written as direct reactions to what was happening in King's career at the time, giving this collection an immediacy different from On Writing's long look back. In "The Horror Market Writer and the Ten Bears," King provides instruction on the best ways to write and publish horror fiction, including his famous list of ten "bears" - fears around which horror stories coalesce. This piece was written before the publication of Carrie, when King was primarily a short story writer, and as such is an unprecedented look at King's thoughts during this vital early stage.
In "On Becoming a Brand Name," King talks about being "typed" as a horror writer. It's fascinating that a piece like this was written so early in his career, after only three novels. One wonders why the Afterword to Different Seasons was not included; King's deeper, later thoughts on the subject of being considered a horror writer make it seem a perfect companion piece. A later piece on his growing fame, "Ever Et Raw Meat?" is a darkly hilarious look at his fan mail. In fact, much of the selections in Secret Windows have a funny side. "What Stephen King Does for Love," as originally printed in Seventeen magazine, is a fun, misleading title; in it, King discusses the disparity between books kids want to read, and the books they are assigned to read in school (a theme King would explore later in Hearts In Atlantis). "Great Hookers I Have Known" seems vulgar until you realize King is talking about first sentences of great fiction.
Perhaps most fascinating about Secret Windows is King's growing ease with an audience. Transcriptions of some of his more important speeches and lectures appear here, including "An Evening at the Billerica Library," "Banned Books and Other Concerns," and "An Evening with Stephen King: March 30, 1999." The first, from 1983, is informative and fascinating, but King only really seems at ease during the more informal question and answer session at the end. The later lectures, while dealing with weighty topics such as banned books and King's belief in God, seem far breezier, with King's more relaxed speaking voice emerging over time.
Also included are introductions to other authors' works, discussing the "moral freakishness" in John Fowles's The Collector (an influence on King's own Misery), and Jack Ketchum's brilliantly horrifying The Girl Next Door. Interestingly, though both pieces reference the crime novelist Jim Thompson, King's fantastic essay, "Big Jim Thompson: An Appreciation" is not included. King looks outward in these selections, providing what amounts to addendums to the "Horror Fiction" piece earlier in Secret Windows. While Danse Macabre remains readable and accessible, King's nonfiction voice has only strengthened with time; these essays (along with the essay "What's Scary," compiled in the re-release of Danse Macabre in 2010) prove that a newer take on the current state of horror is warranted.
Two essays comment directly on specific King novels: the illuminating "How It Happened" and the short, somewhat slight "Turning the Thumbscrews on the Reader," which briefly discusses Misery. While these provide a good look at two of King's best and most important novels, other commentaries - especially "Why I Was Bachman" and "The Importance of Being Bachman," or "On The Shining and Other Perpetrations" - would have been welcome.
The problem with a collection like Secret Windows is that it can never include enough. While King has done a good job collecting and publishing his short fiction, he has been oddly stingy with his nonfiction. Part of the reason may be that while fiction is generally timeless, quite a bit of nonfiction - especially that which comments on current events - is quickly dated. Still, the essays and speeches included in Secret Windows seem crucial to an understanding of Stephen King: the writer, the reader, and the man. A revamped collection, perhaps excising the stories and the readily-available essays, could be expanded to include more obscure, important works. For example, King's essential essays from the Castle Rock newsletter - "The Politics of Limited Editions" and "The Dreaded X" - would give essential insight into King's feelings on filmmaking and limited publications. "The Neighborhood of the Beast," previously included only in Mid-Life Confidential, is another funny, fascinating look on fame and King's time in the Rock Bottom Remainders. Of particular interest would be a transcript of "Burning Bridges," King's illuminating acceptance speech for the National Book Award.
Published by the Book-of-the-Month Club and not made available to stores, Secret Windows is a terrific collection that deserves a wider audience. A limited publication at the time, this book remains obscure, even though it is now readily available for purchase online and through secondary sellers. With a fantastic foreword by Peter Straub and the only collected appearance of some of these ultra-rare essays and speeches, Secret Windows is a vital, necessary book that can only be improved by expansion and a wider circulation.