Stephen King on ”Lunar Park” being an homage to him
I was browsing the Borders in Boston one day in late August when a clerk cruised up and murmured, ”Dude! Bret Easton Ellis is blaming his new book on you!”
I thought he must have been joking — city-glitterati Bret Easton Ellis doing Stephen King seemed about as likely as Stephen King doing Philip Roth — but that night I put our names together on the computer, more or less on a whim, and was shocked when the Google search spat out something like 72,000 hits.
Turns out Bret Easton Ellis is calling Lunar Park a Stephen King homage, and claims to have read Salem’s Lot at least a dozen times as a kid…or so says Elizabeth Hand in The Washington Post, but she also calls the demonic toy in Lunar Park a Yerby (it’s actually a Terby, and yes, it matters). If Ellis really did read Salem’s Lot a dozen times as a kid, the reasons for the past drug use he’s spoken of become much clearer to me.
In any case, of course I went back to the bookstore, bought Lunar Park, and read it. At one point the narrator asks, ”Who was going to buy the pitch I was making in order to save myself?” Me, for one, and I get a 20 percent discount, too. I started looking for my own footprints, and ended up following Ellis’. Not a wasted trip, either. Not at all.
I’m not quite a Bret Easton Ellis virgin. I read American Psycho just to see what all the bellowing was about, and thought it was bad fiction by a good writer, the sort of hectoring narrative you can’t wait to get away from at a party, delivered by a guy who’s backed you into a corner and keeps telling repetitive anecdotes while his drink dribbles slowly onto your shirt.
Lunar Park is nothing like that. I got no sense that Ellis has any real grounding in American horror fiction (I’m pretty sure he’s read Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and, of course…me), but he’s clearly seen enough movies to know what works and what to avoid. Surely it will be the only work of mainstream American fiction to be reviewed in Fangoria magazine this year. Think of it as…I don’t know…John Cheever writes The Shining. If that turns your stomach, fine; many of the critics who’ve reviewed Lunar Park have stuck it in the literary microwave and given it about four hours on high. If it sounds interesting, however, maybe you’re with the group who finds the book a strange triumph.
Check this out: A newly married writer with substance-abuse problems moves to the burbs with his very troubled family. (He’s named Bret Easton Ellis, but never mind; that’s your basic critic-kryptonite tossed out by a gun-shy novelist who’s been shot in the ass too often by The New York Review of Books.) The house starts coming to life around him, reinventing itself as the one he lived in as a child. Neighborhood children begin to disappear. The ghost of his father appears. Worse, he starts getting blank e-mails from the bank where Dad’s ashes are stored — at two in the morning, the time of his father’s death. The e-mails have a spooky Blair Witch Project-like home movie attached. His little girl’s favorite toy (Terby the stuffed birdy) comes to life. And then, like George Stark in The Dark Half, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho turns up and begins to commit murders.
There’s some annoying hugger-mugger — a phantom wind strong enough to knock over a vending machine that doesn’t seem to bother Bret at all, for instance — but there are also some dandy set pieces (as the Fangoria review, probably the best and certainly the most knowledgeable, points out). I kept expecting Ellis to cop out and retreat to the hackneyed haven of the ”serious novelist”: Was it real or was it a dream? You must decide for yourself, dear reader. Nope; in the last couple of chapters, Lunar Park goes all out, balls to the wall. I respect that.
And Lunar Park‘s denouement offers real and affecting insight into how fathers and sons can draw apart, and yet never stop yearning for some reconciliation. The creepiest insight the book has to offer — and the most mature — is that some such longings may even survive death.
Whether or not Bret Easton Ellis is ”doing” Stephen King at the beginning of Lunar Park (little parenthetical expressions and all) doesn’t matter, because by the end, all the masks, imitations, and pharmacological shopping lists have been set aside. Even in American Psycho, that boringly bloodthirsty book, it was clear to me that Ellis was a fine storyteller. It’s this facet of his writing that has most appealed to readers and been most overlooked by critics. It seems at times to have appalled Ellis himself (one could almost believe it’s the Terby hidden inside his laptop, flexing its claws). I got a clear sense of Lunar Park having started almost as a joke — perhaps a rather desperate one, part apology for American Psycho — and having finished as what is close to a credo. That is the true magic of novels, which often possess more strength (and reality) than their creators suppose: They see into our secret hearts.
Speaking of hearts, readers of Lunar Park may be surprised to find that Bret Easton Ellis has a surprisingly large one. Here is a book that progresses from darkness and banality to light and epiphany with surprising strength and sureness.