The angels are in the details. And the more specific those details – the sweeter those angels will sing. Nobody knows that better than Stephen King.
When a refrigerator opens in a Stephen King story we don’t just find ketchup on the shelf. We find Heinz Ketchup on the shelf. Heinz Ketchup is a cultural icon for most of us. We see the dark red through the glass – the white crest shaped label – the metal cap that’s hard to unscrew.
King understands our mental associations with the objects of American life – especially brand name objects. Evoking these iconic associations makes a scene feel more real no matter how outlandish other elements of that scene may be. And we do know Stephen can get outlandish.
Here’s an example from the Stephen King novel Carrie. “The explosion of Toni’s Citgo on upper Summer Street had resulted in a ferocious fire that was not to be controlled until nearly two o’clock in the morning.”
He could have said “the explosion of the gas station.” But “Toni’s Citgo” is much more real. We are right there on upper Summer Street seeing and believing. However incredible the events of Carrie White’s life may be – the specificity of Toni’s Citgo helps us suspend our disbelief.
In another Stephen King example from his novel The Shining Wendy Torrance is terrified of her husband Jack as usual. She “paws through her purse and comes up with an Anacin” after complaining timidly of “a really bad headache.”
“’No Excedrin?’ Jack snaps back. He saw the small recoil in her face and understood.” We understand too and wish we could offer her a Xanax and a ticket out of there.
My personal example resonates more privately. Except maybe if you’ve had a beloved relative in pain and peril and were beside yourself with overwhelming feelings of grief and powerlessness.
This relative was my precious granddaughter and she’d just gone through radical back surgery. I was at her parents’ house exhausted after hours at the hospital. But I couldn’t sleep because I was miserable and afraid. I needed something sweet at a bitter time.
I prowled the kitchen trying not to wake anyone but all I could find was a box of Cheerios. I spirited that box back to my granddaughter’s single bed where I was sleeping – or supposed to be sleeping – while she was hospitalized.
I stuffed dry circles into my mouth as tears wet my cheeks. I woke the next morning with those circles crushed underneath me. I’d been sleeping with Cheerios. If I ever write that full scene – how much less real and resonant will it be if I say I’d been sleeping with cereal?
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Alice Orr – www.aliceorrbooks.com