Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lisa Rogak's "Haunted Heart"

I've been following the career of Stephen King for more than 30 years now, and Lisa Rogak's "Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King" (St. Martin's; 310 pages; $25.95) didn't initially strike me as something I absolutely needed to read or review. I haven't seen every story in the media about King in the last three decades, but I'm certainly well acquainted with the major turning points in his life story. Although Rogak has published more than 40 books, I wasn't familiar with her work enough to trust her immediately as an authority, as I did Douglas Winter when he published "The Art of Darkness" back in the Eighties.

I'm glad I picked up "Haunted Heart," though. It's smoothly written, respectful and non-exploitative, a straight-forward chronological biography that treads lightly when it comes to literary criticism. In addition to the usual rags-to-riches-with-a-slight-detour-through-alcohol-and-drug-abuse narrative, Rogak elicits fresh comments and anecdotes from King's mentors, friends and colleagues. She also sheds light on King's relationships with his wife and children, rounding out her portrait of an artist obsessed with the darker side but usually also focused on traditional values of family, charity and hard work.

I caught a couple of minor errors (Tom Clancy's "The Hunt of Red October" was his second book, but his first novel), some odd interpretations of King's fiction (the ending of "Thinner" is very, very far from "upbeat") and a strange omission or two (after emphasizing so heavily King's love of the Red Sox, why no mention in the main text of "Faithful," his non-fiction collaboration with Stewart O'Nan?).

In general, though, Rogak's presentation of the material gibes with what I know about her subject, and she provided sufficient new tidbits to keep me interested. I'm not sure what the audience for this book might be -- truly devoted King fans may be tired of the umpteenth retelling of how "Carrie" was rescued from the garbage pail -- but it's the kind of easy-going biography that might appeal to a high school or college student who wants to know what it's like to be one of the most influential popular writers of the past half-century.

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