If you have children, one of the best things you can do with them is read together. It teaches them early on to love books and love learning, it’s quality parent-and-child time spent together, and it is likely the only chance you’ll get to read anything longer than the directions on a bottle of Children’s Imodium for several years. Kids are a joy, but they do tend to make demands of your time. For example, I’m a big fan of Stephen King. I have been ever since my uncle first introduced me to The Stand when I was in high school. I met my wife on a message board dedicated to The Dark Tower. And by the time my son was born in 2017, there were only four or five books in his lengthy catalog that I had not yet read. However, after Eddie was born, my reading time was curtailed drastically but King’s writing time was not, so those four or five unread books have expanded to approximately eleventy trillion.
But my son is a little older now, and it’s finally starting to become a little easier to squeeze in something longer than your average comic book for my reading pleasure. I recently looked at the vast array of new King that has been produced in the last six years, carefully weighed the options, communed with the spirits of the literary world for how to begin, and finally decided to hell with it, I’m gonna read The Green Mile again.
If you’re not familiar with The Green Mile, either through the novel or the top-notch film, I have to say it’s not what people usually think of when they think of Stephen King. There are no child-munching clowns, no apocalypse viruses, not even a writer from Maine. The story is told from the perspective of an old man who was a prison guard in the 1930s, and it centers on one of his death-row inmates who turns out to be harboring a fantastic secret. It’s a character drama with a little magical realism in it, and although there are certainly intense moments, there’s nothing in the book that could really classify it as horror. It is, I say without hyperbole, one of his finest works. Also, there’s a mouse.
It’s been years since I last read the book, but dipping into it again was like visiting old friends who happened to be convicted murderers. I was immediately plunged into the world of Paul Edgecombe and John Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelled the same”). I hated Percy Wetmore all over again, I sympathized with Eduard Delacroix all over again. But as I read this time, I noticed something that had not occurred to me in previous readings of this story: namely how perfectly plotted this story is.
Conventional wisdom says there are two types of fiction writers: architects and farmers. Architects meticulously plan out every scrap and detail of a story ahead of time, decide every beat and turn, and only then, once the blueprints are done, do they write. Farmers plant some seeds with only the vaguest idea of what shape the story will eventually blossom into, but pruning and cultivating that plotted plant is part of the joy of being a writer. By all accounts (including his own), Stephen King is a farmer, and sometimes it shows. As magnificent as he is at character and concept, more than a few of his books suffer from deus ex machina endings that seem to come out of nowhere. (Read The Girl That Loved Tom Gordon some time – you can pick out the exact moment where the writer decided this kid had been wandering aimlessly through the woods long enough and it was time to wrap this puppy up.)
Even King’s best books usually include long segments of backstory or subplots which, although enjoyable to read as they help flesh out the world he is creating, are ultimately unnecessary to the plot and could easily be excised if Reader’s Digest got their hands on it. But not The Green Mile. I was actively looking for the fat when I read the book this time, and I could find none. Each and every piece feels crucial to the overall puzzle. Arlen Bitterbuck’s execution? It’s there to demonstrate how executions are supposed to go, so that what happens later has the necessary context. The Brad Dolan subplot in the framing sequence? It steers Paul’s retelling of the story to its final revelation (which itself resolves a lot of the lingering questions left behind over the course of the book). The brief mention of the only woman who ever served time in E Block? Seems extraneous at first, as her sentence is commuted and she quickly leaves the story.
However, it turns out that this woman is really there to set up another device that turns out to be important: Death by Finale. After her brief appearance in the book, Paul mentions how she eventually died of natural causes several decades later. Again, it seems like a nothing detail, but it’s really there to establish a pattern: afterwards, King tells us of the final fate of almost every named character during the last scene in which they appear. It’s easy enough to miss the first few times. Her fate and that of another inmate whose sentence was commuted (murdered in the prison laundry 12 years later) are incidental. But the pattern becomes clearer as the story goes on, especially in the final chapters, where the fates of Paul’s fellow guards and the other key figures are all stacked on top of each other. It also lends weight to a scene midway through the book where Paul, as the narrator, is somewhat apologetic to the reader for not knowing the fate of the reverend who visits with the prisoners before their executions. It’s an odd moment on first reading, but you realize later that Old Paul is telling these stories to illustrate a point about what has happened to him, so the scene with Reverend Shuster is recontextualized – Paul is sorry that he’s unable to do so this time.
Even minor details come back in an essential way later. In Part One, Paul learns about the crime for which John Coffey has been convicted and throws out little tidbits such as the tracking dogs getting confused at one point and Coffey having a lunch wrapped in paper and tied up with twine. Both are details that are seemingly there just to add flavor to the scene. Both turn out to be crucial later.
“But Blake,” you’re saying, “Isn’t that just how stories are written? It’s good writing, sure, but is it that surprising from an old pro like King?” Normally I would agree with you, but it is the circumstances under which this book was written that makes all of this so impressive to me. Those of you who weren’t reading King in 1996 (or weren’t even born yet – yikes) may not know it, but The Green Mile was not originally published as a single novel. In an experiment to recreate the serialized works of folks like Charles Dickens, King wrote and released the book in six installments, published in slim paperback “chapbooks,” and by his own admission, did not yet know how the story would end when the first part was published.
I knew about the chapbook part, of course. I was there in ‘96, eagerly awaiting each installment. I still remember sitting in the lobby of the band hall at Nicholls State University gorging myself when a new part was released. But the fact that he hadn’t finished the book when Part One was released is something I only learned recently, and frankly, it blew my mind. Did he know how Melinda Moore’s illness would factor in? Did he know the awful secret of Wild Bill Wharton? King says his wife, upon reading an early draft, asked him what happened to the mouse that disappeared halfway through the book, and from my perspective as a reader, I cannot even fathom what the ending of this story would be without Mr. Jingles. This is arguably one of King’s best works, and inarguably one of the tightest, most fat-free novels in his bibliography…and he didn’t know the ending yet when I read Part One?
That’s a straight-up magic trick.
Writers always go back and edit their work to help it flow better. Even the architects don’t always finish things exactly as intended, so a certain amount of adjustment is expected, especially in the earlier chapters. Taking that tool away is like putting a writer on a tightrope and daring them not to screw it up. I’m doing something similar now on Kindle Vella, with my series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars (gotta get that plug in), except I’m doing a chapter a week instead of a hundred pages or so a month. And I know for damn sure that I haven’t pulled it off as perfectly as King did. Early chapters of my story set things up for a character who has turned out to be far less important than I originally planned. (Blip, if you’re reading OPH and you really want to know whose part got reduced.) Meanwhile, a character who was introduced literally just to fill a desk in one scene has become my favorite in the whole story and will be crucial to the ending. (To no one’s surprise, this character is Keriyon Hall.) None of this is unusual, especially for farmers like the King and I, but that inability to go back and adjust will make for what TV Tropes calls “early installment weirdness” for people who read it later.
All of this is to say that when one is attempting art of any kind, one tends to learn from those who have done it before and done it well. And some snooty scholarial types may take issue with this, but I don’t care: damned if there are many people in the world who do what I want to do better than Stephen King.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. “Attempted art” kind of sounds like a criminal charge, doesn’t it? Like The Room or Troll 2.