Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Stephen King and the Devil

I’m re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing and my suspicions are once again confirmed that King signed a contract, not with Simon & Schuster, but Satan. Now this is a book about writing. A good chunk of it is a style manual. Boring, right?

Wrong. It’s a barn-burner, a page turner. The ideas in it eat away at my brain, and I find myself thinking of them at odd moments during the day, excited for the next time I get to read it. No way does anybody have this sort of effect on folks (and I know I’m not the only one) without some sort of deal with His Infernal Majesty.

Here’s the negotiations on the contract as I imagine them.

“Mr. King, we’re prepared to offer you our standard contract on a lifetime basis. Now, there will be no need to renew or review any of the terms once you’ve signed, as this is a non-revocable contract, not subject to cancellation by either party at any time. As I’m sure you’re aware, the head of our Company is sometimes unfairly characterized as a, well, as a bit of a cheat. Regardless, you’ll be happy to see all the terms laid out here in black and white.”

The board room is tastefully appointed with dark wood paneling and indirect, subdued lighting that glints off discreet brass accents. The giant wood table dominating the center of the room seems to suck the light deep inside it, where it dimly gleams beneath the almost black, glassy surface. The lawyer from “The Company,” wears a simple dark suit. His skin is tan, almost leathery.

“Um, this is great. Just great. But, for the record, what will I get again?”

“Mr. King, let me assure you, no one is more concerned for the success of our clients than The Company. Your success, is, you might say, our success. The greater the rewards in the form of earthly joys and privileges, pleasures of the flesh, as it were, the greater the dividends paid to the head of our Company on fulfillment of the contract.”

“Yeah. Could you just lay it out straight for me there, fella?”

The lawyer laughs a dry, papery laugh. “Mr. King. You are quite the direct one, aren’t you? As we have discussed, upon execution of this contract your writings will become as popular as any author in history.”

“Can you really do that? What, are you gonna round people up and make them buy my books?”

“Oh, Mr. King, there will be nothing coercive about the means which the company uses. There never is.” He paused for a moment, as if amused at some private joke, then continued. “The company prides itself on the fact that all relationships with clients and end-users are completely consensual. In fact,” he says, his voice deepening to almost, but not quite, a growl, “we can’t do business any other way.”

“So how’s it work? Step by step.”

“Well, yes, then. An end-user will voluntarily purchase one of your books, based perhaps on a review or an advertising campaign coordinated by any one of our many operatives in publishing. Once they have opened the book and freely accepted participation in the reading process, we will have an opportunity to be slightly more, shall we say, persuasive. They will not stop reading until they have finished every page.”

“And how do you do that?”

“Well, that is proprietary information, but I can describe the effects of the process for you in a little more detail. At first, the book will be nothing more than a pleasant distraction, something to while away a few hours. With our help, however, that will quickly change. The ideas, the tone, the situations and characters, will begin to echo in the reader’s mind. They will think about reading your book when they are working, or showering. They will read your book deep into the night, dismissing sleep and sex and all but the most rudimentary contact with the outside world.

“Now, this is the most exciting part: once they have finished, we implant a residual energy signature that sets up an emotional resonance whenever they see your name on the cover of a book. It’s a very basic Pavlovian response mechanism, but extremely effective. This creates a ready-made market for additional books, and assures a long life for books already in print.”

Stephen pauses for a moment, staring at his hands. His voice is thick when he speaks again.

“And what do I have to do?”

Again the dusty laugh, like insects scurrying across dry, rotted wood. “Oh, Mr. King! Don’t worry! You have nothing to fear from us. At the appropriate time, we will merely continue the process you yourself have already begun.” Stephen starts a little at this, wipes his nose furtively. “No, by the time the contract comes into force, you will hardly notice any transition at all. Perhaps by that time you will have become so adept with your skills, since, after all, we will merely be amplifying what talents you already have, that you will be able to join our organization in a more…” he pauses, considering his words carefully, “…permanent capacity.”

An idea occurs to Stephen. He waves his hand as if brushing away flies. “Now wait,” he says. “Wait. Now, wait a minute. If you’re just ‘amplifying’ things that I can already do, what do I need you for?”

The lawyer frowns. “Mr. King. We are the foremost representatives of those who wish to be independent and successful. We choose only the most driven, the most talented people to be our clients. If we did not see the potential latent within you, we would never have approached you. You have a formidable gift, Mr. King, there is no question, but natural gifts will only take you so far. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of writers, all of them talented, some of them perhaps even more so than you, who will never reach their full potential. Do you wish to be one of them? Do you wish upon your wife and lovely children a life like the one you had? The poverty, the crushed dreams and deferred ambitions that weigh upon the mind and body like chains? Is this what you want?” The lawyer’s voice seems to acquire a weight that it did not have before. The room grows even more quiet, everything listening to this small, leathery man’s low, urgent words.

He leans in close to Stephen. He is almost whispering, now. “And let me also say, Mr. King, that it would not be wise at this juncture in the proceedings to walk away from the table. No, Mr. King, not wise at all. Our clients include many people in your industry. Many powerful people. It would not do, Mr. King, to acquire a reputation so early in your career of being a difficult person. I do not think that would be wise at all.”

The lawyer leans back, and there is air in the room again. He brushes an invisible piece of lint from his sleeve and smiles brightly. “So Mr. King,” he says, “are there any other questions I might be able to answer while we’re here? I’d like to make sure you’re completely comfortable before we finish our negotiations. I think, if you’ve had your lawyer look over the contract, that he will find it to be,” the smile widens, “completely fair.”

Stephen sits without speaking. The lawyer continues, “I must say, Mr. King, you’re quite the negotiator. Very sharp. I can see why The Company pursued you with such interest. You’ve asked wonderful questions, and really, you’re getting one of the best deals I’ve ever seen.” The lawyer lays a pen on the table parallel with the edge of the contract. “Now, if we’re quite done here, I think we’ll just need your signature to begin our work together.”

Stephen picks up the pen, and it feels incredibly heavy in his hand. The barrel looks like it’s made of the same material as the table, as if it absorbed and held light deep within itself. He stares at it blankly for a few moments, fascinated.

“Mr. King?”

Stephen shakes his head. “Yeah, fair.” he says. He fumbles the cap off the pen, and signs his name at the bottom of the document.

“And sign here, just another copy. Initial here, here, and here. And just one more signature here, your standard indemnity clause. And we’re done!” The lawyer sweeps the pages from the table with one hand and taps them into a tidy stack. Stephen stares at the space where the contract was on the table. Now there is only his reflection staring back at him. The face looks unfamiliar, floating somewhere deep inside the darkness, down there with the light.

The lawyer quickly puts the contract into his briefcase, and snaps it closed. “Alright then, Mr. King? There will be no further need to contact me in the future, but you have my card, nonetheless. It has been a pleasure meeting with you, and I wish you success in all your future endeavors. I’m sure you will be successful. Very sure indeed, Mr. King.”

Stephen continues to stare at his reflection, pale and white far below. Finally, hearing the words, he shakes his head. “Um, yeah. OK.” The lawyer stands, and Stephen stands as well. He still clutches the lawyer’s pen in his hand. He looks at it like he’s holding a snake he is afraid will bite him if he lets go, says, “You want your pen?”

The lawyer shakes Stephen’s hand, smiling a smile somehow wider than the confines of his face, and full of teeth. “Please keep it, Mr. King. With my compliments.”

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