MessMy previous post about learning from the greats is a great demonstration of how great I’m not. That post was as big a mess as the kitchen in the picture.

(That’s NOT my kitchen, mind you. I searched MorgueFile.com for a picture of “mess” and chose that from the results. Just so you know that…)

Back to that messy post: it had been a long time since I’d updated my blog and I didn’t want to delay any longer, so I was determined to do it that evening, one way or another. Problem is, I was falling asleep as I typed, so it’s not surprising there were a lot of errors in it.

The next day I went back and fixed them, or so I thought. Then it dawned on me today that I’d given the wrong name for the Stephen King book I’m reading. It’s not The Shining, but rather, The Stand. Sorry about that!

I got this particular copy from the Paperback Swap Club, a group I participated in for a few years, and this one happens to be the “complete and uncut” edition. That means all that stuff the author originally wrote that the editor made him cut when he first submitted the manuscript? He later put all that back in because he was by then a big-name big-bucks author and he could indulge himself in that way. This version weighs in at a bloated 1141 pages.

As I indicated in my last post, there are many things about this book that make it stellar. Conciseness is not one of them. If I were the editor, I’d have made him cut a lot of this stuff too. I don’t love all the long, involved stories and backstories that lead up to the climax — which, though I’m on page 590, is still far in the distance.

What I do love: his characterizations. I can’t really say I love the characters, because many of them are sleazy and disgusting. Some are likeable. But they’re all believable, multi-faceted, and vividly described. He gets perfect scores on this.

The delicious similes and metaphors, such as: the flesh over a terrible burn, now healing, is “hairless andThe Stand pink, like the skin of a cheap doll”; a backpack “hung askew on his back like a shutter on a haunted house.” Describing a terrible realization occurring to one of the characters: “… a polar thought slipped up through the floor of his mind like an icy stiletto blade.” Stars gleam in the clear night, “bathing the desert in their cold witchlight.” An exhausted man plods along, “his head hanging like the bloom of a dying sunflower.” After drinking his fill of water at last, he moves on, “sloshing like a filled goatskin.”

I found all this in just a few pages, and I’ve been delighting in it.

Yes, much of the book is gross, creepy, and/or revolting. But some of it is moving in a different sort of way. Here’s the snippet I wanted to share with you last time but I was too tired.

The character is a young black woman in 1902, the daughter of freed slaves who had moved to Nebraska to farm. Not all the other farmers were willing to accept a black family, but enough of them did that they were able to prosper. On this occasion, she has been asked to sing at the Grange Hall — something wholly unheard-of for such a one, and she was a basket of nerves over it. But she agreed to do it and psyched herself up for the performance. Now, let’s listen:

And so she began to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” into the moveless silence, her fingers picking melody. Then picking up a strum, the slightly stronger melody of “How I Love My Jesus,” and then stronger still, “Camp Meeting in Georgia.” Now people were swaying back and forth almost in spite of themselves. Some were grinning and tapping their knees.

She sang a medley of Civil War songs: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “Goober Peas” (more smiles at that one; many of these men, Grand Army of the Republic veterans, had eaten more than a few goober peas during their time in the service). She finished with “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground,” and as the last chord floated away into a silence that was now thoughtful and sad, she thought: Now if you want to throw your tomatas or whatever, you go on and do it. I played and sang my best, and I was real fine.

When the last chord floated into silence, that silence held for a long, almost enchanted instant, as though the people in those seats and the others standing at the back of the hall had been taken far away, so far they could not find their way back all at once. Then the applause broke and rolled over her in a wave, long and sustained, making her blush, making her feel confused, hot and shivery all over. She saw her mother, weeping openly, and her father, and David, beaming at her.

I’m going to skip a few paragraphs to save time and space, and now let’s resume:

She finished to another thunderous ovation and fresh cries of “Encore!” She remounted the stage, and when the crowd had quietened, she said: “Thank you all very much. I hope you won’t think I am bein forward if I ask to sing just one more song, which I have learned special but never ever expected to sing here. But it is just about the best song I know, on account of what President Lincoln and this country did for me and mine, even before I was born.”

They were very quiet now, listening closely. Her family sat stock still, all together near the left aisle, like a spot of blackberry jam on a white handkerchief.

“On account of what happened back in the middle of the States War,” she went steadily on, “my family was able to come here and live with the fine neighbors that we have.”

Then she played and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and everyone stood up and listened, and some of the handkerchiefs came out again, and when she had finished, they applauded fit to raise the roof.

It was the proudest day of her life.

Well. I don’t know about you, but as a writer, I want to hold my readers enchanted, as the character in this scene held her listeners. I want them to feel as if they’ve been taken away, so far they can’t find their way back all at once.

One way to learn to do that is by studying the masters. Even if they do sometimes creep me out.

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