Am I the only one who’s noticed a major Stephen King resurgence lately? King’s themes of darkness just below the surface and supernatural horrors lurking in the American countryside feel like they’re infecting 2016 entertainment with the strength and speed of a deadly viral outbreak — “The Stand” style.
This summer, literally everyone I know fell hard for “Stranger Things,” the Duffer Brothers’ loving distillation of King’s genre archetypes into a six-hour Netflix show. Podcasts like “Welcome to Night Vale” and “Bizarre States” have been incorporating Kingian genre elements into otherwise standard, ethnographically specific American dramas. And let’s certainly not forget Robert Eggers’s fantastic film “The Witch,” the demonic thriller that feels ripped from the pages of “Jerusalem’s Lot.” Point being: there’s a lot of spooky stuff coming out lately that probably wouldn’t be here if not for King’s influence.
Let me be clear: I’m NOT complaining about how much genre stuff there is. Dark, supernatural, make-stuff-float-with-your-mind thrillers are most definitely in my wheelhouse (let me rant to you sometime about why “Chronicle” is one of the greatest films of the 21st century). But while we’re ripping off King, why don’t we look back at his more mainstream stuff, too? In my humble opinion, I think the best thing King ever wrote was “The Body,” a novella that was released as part of the same collection that included the inspiration for “The Shawshank Redemption.” You probably know it better as “Stand By Me,” Rob Reiner’s film adaptation from 1986. It’s the story of four boys who, after an infamously quotable goading from a friend (“You guys wanna go see a dead body?”), go on a spiritual journey through the Maine wilderness to find the corpse of a kid who was hit by a train. It’s an essential exploration of youthful masculinity — certainly a guy movie, but a heartfelt and good one.
The second I heard about Aaron Burch’s book, I knew I had to meet him. The concept, an autobiographical and analytical book about one author’s experience with “The Body” and the change in said experience over time, was immediately gripping. His book is a part of a line called “Bookmarked,” a series of books about books (books that made a “mark” on the author — hence, “Bookmarked”). The line was inspired by “33⅓,” another series of books in which writers take an in-depth look at classic albums.
“I’ve spent years thinking about what I’d write as a 33⅓,” Burch said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
“But I don’t really think I want to write one. And then ‘The Body’ just came to mind, because I love ‘Stand By Me’ so much. It’s like, well, that’s a movie, and these are books about books. But it’s a movie based on a book, so I could kind of cheat a little bit and write about both.”
Burch is an English lecturer at the University of Michigan, and formerly at Eastern Michigan University. You might have taken his “Rhetoric of Growing Up” English 124 section, in which he taught King’s novel among other coming-of-age narratives to freshman students. He’s a young, down-to-earth guy, and his enthusiasm for the material was quite immediately evident — a bright, bearded smile shined at me throughout our conversation.
“I think I’ve read and loved lots of books that I don’t have anything to say about,” Burch said.
“I’ve been forced to say things about it because I’m the teacher, and I have to at least pretend to be the authority on it. And then, also, (I) can end up using that to talk about teaching. I have lesson plans that I could almost turn into essays that (could) become the book but I can also talk about how that lesson plan worked in class.”
Besides teaching and writing, Burch also curates Hobart, a literary journal. A stuffy, stereotypical academic journal Hobart is not. It has a sleek, indie aesthetic, and frequently publishes poems, nonfiction and fiction from a huge variety of writers.
“I wasn’t yet seriously thinking about if I ever wanted to write a book or publish a book. I was just doing these short little things to entertain myself,” Burch said.
“I had just finished college and I didn’t know what I was doing. And those things were fun. And I had a day job at a bank which wasn’t fun.”
Burch started the journal in 2001 as a website. He learned how to build in HTML in a class and used it as an excuse to practice web design.
“And then we started doing books at some point,” Burch said.
Burch’s wife, Ellen, is essentially his creative partner. They work on most of their literary ventures together — though he’s mostly focused on the online journal, and these days she’s mostly in charge of the full-length books.
One of my favorite chapters of Burch’s book talks about the relationship between Gordie (the narrator and protagonist) and King himself. Being a video game fan, I couldn’t help but geek out when Burch compared the nature of Gordie’s narration to a customizable role-playing game protagonist, synthesizing an excerpt from a Matt Bell essay on “Baldur’s Gate 2.” I made sure to grill him about it.
“I don’t just like (that part) just because (the narrator) was King, and that makes it more real. I like it because you can feel King peeking out from around the corner,” Burch said.
“The Body” has been criticized over the years for a few things, likely most frequently about its almost complete lack of female characters. But often it seems like people criticize fans of “The Body” fans more than the text itself — online rhetoric around “Stand By Me” and “The Body” is extremely negative toward those that have vigorous nostalgia for the stories. I love what Burch had to say about the matter.
“I think the reason the book and the movie still work is because of nostalgia, but I don’t think nostalgia alone would hold up over so long,” he said.
“It’s easy to be really cynical about nostalgia and just blanket discount it. I think King doesn’t do that at all. He really embraces … you know, he loved this moment. But saying he loved it doesn’t mean it was perfect.
“I think one of the important things is that they all end up going their separate ways. It’s not the ‘and then we were friends forever’ ending. Or also, it doesn’t just end ‘and then the summer ended.’ ”
Aaron Burch’s book, “Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked,” is available on Amazon.