Just about everyone knows that horror writer Stephen King has a famous son following in his footsteps: Joe Hill. But would you know that King has another, younger son who is also a writer and novelist? It turns out that Owen King (who, unlike Hill, keeps his well-known surname) has taken up the family business as well, but unlike his father and older brother, seemingly wants little to do with the horror genre. Instead, King, who has just published his debut novel, Double Feature, has been compared to John Irving in terms of writing slice-of-life character-driven literary fiction that is about as far down the road from ’Salem’s Lot as you could possibly get.
As such, when you read Double Feature, you have to marvel at how well the young King has mastered his own tone: while Joe Hill seems to be, at times, emulating the thrills and spills of his famous father, Owen King is much more reserved and refined. If reading Stephen King is said to be the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, reading Owen King is a little like dining out at a fairly fancy restaurant and ordering a nice, well-done order of steak. The juxtaposition is quite something, and you have to give props to Owen King for striking out on his own and doing his own thing.
However, Double Feature is a novel that doesn’t entirely jettison the pop culture-y sort of oeuvre that Stephen King dabbles in: it’s a book about film, both high-brow and trashy, and it’s also a book about father-son relationships. One of the central characters is a man named Booth Dolan, who is a B-movie actor from the late ‘60s to ‘80s with some level of cult appeal – and given that, you would be forgiven for reading the tea leaves a little and thinking that Booth is really a stand-in for Stephen King. I don’t think there’s an awful lot of Owen King’s father in this book, which makes it extremely competently written from a character creation standpoint, though Booth’s wife Allie does seem to have shades of how I imagine Owen’s mother, Tabitha King, might be, right down to the (over)use of the word “kiddo” when talking to her son. In any event, you might accuse Owen King for having his art imitate life to some degree, and maybe it sort of does, but Double Feature is a well-written first stab at defining himself as distantly as possible from his family as an artist.
The plot jumps back and forth through time from the late ‘60s to the present day, but it revolves around a young filmmaker Sam Dolan, who is coming to terms with his relationship with his absentee father and who attempts to be something of an auteur: his first film, Who We Are, was envisioned to be a kind-of Citizen Kane of student-produced films by its creator. However, the assistant director of the flick takes the negative and vandalizes the work so that it resembles something more akin to the cult film The Room, which is often described as the Citizen Kane of bad filmmaking, and is the sort of thing usually screened in environments where the audience can openly mock the movie.
Naturally, when the recut version is released (with all of Sam’s cuts of the film destroyed), Sam is devastated, and by the time we meet him in the thrust of the main part of the book’s narrative, he is barely picking up the pieces from his disappointment. He lives with the fact that his film was jettisoned (he doesn’t try to sue the AD and almost pretends that he didn’t make the work of “art” by being as distant, emotionally and otherwise, from it as possible), and is surrounded by a cast of loopy characters, including a roommate who has found Internet fame through a blog where he gives curt dismissals or recommendations of all sort of free swag that companies send to him to review, and a godfather who keeps on adding new additions to his house, as unwieldy as they may appear.
Sam is in a risky relationship, as his college girlfriend is now married to a star baseball player and yet he’s carrying on an affair with her. In many ways, Sam is as broken as his film and, throughout the course of one long weekend, is kickstarted into a process where he can begin healing and make amends for the fact that his father wasn’t always there for him, and that his name is attached to what turns out to be a rather shitty movie. (If you want to know how bad Who We Are actually is, basically it is a serious art film about a group of students who go through the four years of college during the course of telescoped single day that has had scenes of a man dressed as a satyr either urinating in a forest or having sex with trees intercut into the piece. Drinking games have naturally been invented for it – i.e., you take a swig every time the satyr appears.)
So Double Feature is about artistic ambition and how the process of creating art can be destroyed or perverted by outside elements. And we get a cyclonic feel as to how frantic creating a film can actually be: there’s a section at the front of the book that describes the making of Who We Are that’s written as one very long, 13-page paragraph without any line breaks whatsoever.
The book also ruminates on the nature of B-movies through the eyes of Sam’s father, Booth, and considers their worthiness as an art form. Aping some words that Stephen King has sort of made over the years, Owen King basically posits that watching trashy film and television is OK so long as it doesn’t make anyone want to kill anyone, and that we need mindless diversions to indulge in when there’s some very serious stuff going on in the outside world. Indeed, it is fun to delve into the invented world of the fake films that Double Feature offers, even though Sam’s original vision of Who We Are is a little too precious and self-serious considering the script fragments Owen King provids makes it seem like an overwrought piece of amateurism – though maybe that’s the point. (As a cult film, though, Owen King basically nails it.) Particularly giddy are descriptions of the bad films Booth Dolan finds himself in front of the cameras for, which all neatly sum up the exploitative nature of the era in which they were produced.
However, Double Feature, while appealing and engaging as Sam moves towards a begrudging respect for his family and himself, can be a chore to read. This is primarily because Sam is such a pathetic and messed-up character, particularly early on and in the novel’s weighty and slow mid-section, that you, as the reader, want to reach into the book, grab the script pages for Who We Are out of Sam’s clutches and beat him repeatedly over the head with them.
Further, the book has also been criticized by Entertainment Weekly for having poorly realized female characters. I didn’t have so much of a problem with that aspect of the novel, despite the fact that most of them seem particularly sex crazed, but Allie, Sam’s mother, seems too loosely shaded: we learn early on that she dies when Sam is in college working towards making his first film, but we don’t know the hows or whys until near the end of the novel, and when we do learn of the means in which she passed, it seems almost anticlimactic and less of a tragedy that the novel initially leads one to believe. In addition, there’s a scene that’s kind of out of left field in the latter passages of the book that seems ripped right out of the plot to The World According to Garp, and it comes across as being quite unbelievable.
Still, despite its faults, Double Feature is a long, generally absorbing read. Owen King has a knack for vivid detail and describing his characters down to a T. (We meet Booth Dolan in the latter passages of the novel in the present day, and he’s presented as being bearded, overweight and wearing a woolen cape as though he’s a version of some sort of superhero.)
What’s more, the novel is full of piercing insight into the follies of the young and failed ambitions – when the reader discovers what the happens to the production of Who We Are, you feel as quietly repulsed about it as does the main character, which is a strength of Owen King’s writing. While you won’t find Double Feature on the screens of any remaining drive-ins any time soon, it’s a generally consistent and fine first novel from a scribe with promise. And one who doesn’t cop to the grand family tradition of the macabre, unless you count the horror and humiliation of having your first film butchered to be as scary as anything conjured up in The Shining.
Owen King is quite merrily going down his own path, and it’s fun to follow him down the new rabbit hole that he’s digging. With his father’s eye for sleepy small town detail, but his own sense of style and theme (and self-effacing humor), Double Feature is a pretty good work for someone whose own upbringing had to have resembled the B-movies that he so lovingly recreates here.