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A Writing Prompt #5
Let's reimagine Stephen King
The newspaper I worked for went belly-up, and all I got was this lousy T shirt…
First, let’s talk about cultural precedent. To me it’s related to legal precedent, meaning that unless a book or film or song is related to something we already know, we won’t accept it. Something too new has a much harder time gaining traction. That’s why a new voice in fiction is hard to launch. It takes a lot of money to get people’s attention, and nobody wants to lose their investment because a project is too out there.
For instance in 1993 when my agent was shopping around my manuscript for Invisible Monsters, we had five editors interested. But eventually they all dropped out because the marketing people at each publishing house were worried about how they might position the book. It all came down to the question, “What shelf would the bookstore put this novel on?” Is it literary fiction? Humor? What?
Early on my editor, Gerry Howard, told me that a successful book needed to riff off of previous successful books. At the time he said, “Right now, everyone is looking for a Chicano Joy Luck Club.”
That’s a book I could never write. But I got where he was coming from—something too entirely new is too hard to launch. With that, consider the following:
Gone Girl is almost a reboot of the 1979 British film Agatha about the disappearance of Agatha Christie.
The Sixth Sense is almost a cover of the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder.
Christine was almost a cover of the 1977 film The Car. Maximum Overdrive was almost a cover of the 1971 film Duel.
With every generation, everything seems to get reinvented slightly. Not so much as something new, but as something reimagined from something existent. Consider the Stephen King short story The Mangler—it’s about an automated, steam-powered pressing machine that irons laundry flatwork. According to King it’s lifted from his days at an industrial laundry, where batches of butter-drenched, maggot-infested tablecloths would come in from lobster restaurants. In the story, a worker is somehow pulled into the machine and crushed flat by the heated rollers and spat out in nicely folded chunks at the end. The story is from his collection, Night Shift, and I loved it at the age of sixteen.
Which brings us to the writing prompt. During my time at the Daily Oregonian and the Oregon Journal I sometimes worked as the “neg runner.” That meant I ran the negative of each press plate from the downtown newspaper headquarters to the printing plant a dozen blocks away. The typesetters in the Composing Room set each page. The photographer shot it. And I ran that negative of the picture to the printer where it was used to created the metal plate for offset printing.
How to do justice to the presses? Massive Goss Metro presses that stretched for a city block and rose two stories high. The stink of ink, like gasoline, and the roar, both were incredible. These machines shook the building during a press run. Huge rolls of newsprint fed between rollers, and if that paper tore—called a web break—the whole operation had to shut down in an instant as acres of paper spewed out.
That deafening, stinking printing press was how I’d pictured Stephen King’s “mangler.” And it always seemed plausible that a pressman could be killed, and part of one edition—the street edition, or the bull dog, or the one-star—would be printed in his blood.1 Subsequent print jobs would have something “wrong,” perhaps they’d print the horrible truth about public officials, or they’d print future events that hadn’t occurred… yet. Maybe culminating in an apocalypse such as suggested at the end of Charles Baxter’s Through the Safety Net.2
As in the King story, there would have to be a genesis event. Probably an accidental death. Or seemingly accidental. Followed by a discovery process. The stakes would escalate. How would you explain the press becoming sentient and/or clairvoyant? How would you escalate the chain of events? How would you resolve it?
This seems like an easy short story. Again, it echoes the precedent set by the King story. A giant press that eats people. A metaphor for how media turns lives into a commodity. Where would you take it?
I always wanted to call such a story Web Tension, the term for the stress placed on the newsprint (the paper web) as it flew through the press.