For ten years (1990-2000), I regularly reviewed books for Entertainment Weekly, a gig I very much appreciated and dearly loved, except on those not-so-rare occasions when, to paraphase Raymond Chandler, my brain turned to cement and it took me 30 hours (and I’m not kidding you) to write a measly 300 words. I often reviewed novels by “bestselling authors” such as John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, Richard North Patterson, and, of course, Stephen King, whose fiction I’ve always liked and admired, even when it’s been overlong and a little baggy–Insomnia, for instance, or Bag of Bones. I mention King and my book-reviewing days here because it’s an episode that springs from one and involves the other (or vice versa) that’s the direct impetus for my decision to start writing serialized fiction expressly for this blog.
In late March 1996, King nervily began publishing a novel called The Green Mile in low-priced paperback installments issued monthly. At EW I got the assignment to review each installment as it came out, and despite the fact that I try my best to avoid any books or films about life in prison (well, some people can’t stand heights, I can’t stand prison stories, they make me very anxious)–despite that, I was utterly swept away by the story, set during the Great Depression on death row in a Georgia Penetentiary. And I loved that I had to wait a month between installments.
As a high school kid in the mid-60s I’d been hooked on Marvel Comics, especially on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, whose stories continued over several issues and several months, and at the same time I’d also become infatuated by old-time (1930s and 40s,very early 50s) movie serials, things like The Lost Jungle and Darkest Africa, starring Clyde Beatty, as well as Zorro’s Fighting Legion and Flash Gordon and King of the Rocket Men, which were often broadcast in the late afternoon on local New York City TV stations. Also while I was in high school, I read a lot of Dickens, and was amazed and charmed to learn that he used to publish his long, long novels in monthly magazine installments. This is all just to say I was a fan of serial fiction even before Stephen King set himself the task of trying it himself.
Soon after I’d reviewed the second installment of The Green Mile, in late April 1996, I received a letter from King that he’d sent me at Entertainment Weekly and which was forwarded to my home in Virginia. It was handwritten on three or four sheets of yellow foolscap, and he’d written it just to say thank you for the kind notices I’d been giving to his serial novel, and then–in a very chatty, friendly manner–he went on to tell me that he and his brother, as kids, had been avid fans of Western serials, and serial fiction, and that he’d always had it in his head that he’d like to go out on the tightrope himself one day and see what might happen if he started publishing a story he hadn’t yet finished writing and which he had no idea where it was headed or what the ending would be. When I read that, I was poleaxed (as they used to say in Western serials). He didn’t know where it was going? He didn’t know what the ending would be? Most novelists don’t know that stuff when they’re working, but hardly any of us publish the stuff in progress! That Stephen King, man, he’s a gutsy guy.*
Ever since receiving that letter–17 years ago–I’d remember from time to time what he’d done, and how he’d done it, and I’d think, I’d like to try that myself, too. One day. Some day.
So that’s what SERIALS is all about. I’ll be writing, and posting, probably every three weeks or so, a new “episode” of a story written to be read in installments. I have a notebook with half a dozen story ideas jotted down. The first serial, called ”King Touey” is set in Bayonne, New Jersey (my hometown) in 1915 during the famous Standard Oil Strike. King Touey is a character in a long novel I’ve been writing for a couple of years now called ”Patsy Touey” (King is Patsy’s older brother), but this is completely new work, a separate story, and is not part of that novel. (If you subscribe to the blog, you’ll be notified by email whenever a new episode is posted.)
* He’s also a very nice guy, too. When I answered his letter and told him how many “dad points” I’d earned with my two teenaged daughters for having received a handwritten letter from Stephen King, he responded by sending a padded mailer stuffed full of his novels, all inscribed to them. And in case you’re wondering, after we made contact, I stopped reviewing further installments of The Green Mile. Which I still think is one of his masterpieces.