Let us go then, you and I, to a website where a story is spread out against the screen like a patient etherized upon a table. Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.
Really, it’s fine, you can ask, “What is it?” if you want. The “it” in question is a really excellent piece by Brenna Ehrlich over at Crime Reads, which lives under the headline, “Stephen King is quietly enthralled by ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock.’” Appropriately for such a title, it’s a thoughtful, gentle piece of analysis, beginning with and often returning to Ehrlich’s relationship to both T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” and King’s work. (If you, too, have a cat who is definitely one of your best friends, proceed with caution and/or a box of tissues, because it gets real dusty in there.)
But while the I’m-not-crying-it’s-just-dry-in-here moments may be most likely to affect your day as a whole, the entire piece is well worth reading. Ehrlich pinpoints a surprising number of references to and direct quotes from Eliot’s body of work (including The Wasteland, which Ehrlich ties to King’s series The Dark Tower.) But “Prufrock” looms particularly large, and through looking at just some of the times it’s quoted, Ehrlich draws connections between the inner life of Eliot’s lonely titular speaker and King’s characters, whose lives readers enter intimately—and it’s that intimacy, in her view, that makes King’s fiction so potent:
King’s novels exist largely in the context of small lives—a family, a writer, a teen—as does Prufrock. That’s what makes the scares so scary, the emotions more emotional. Prufrock could be a character in one of King’s own novels—for want of a poisonous mist or supernatural powers.
She goes on to look at what Eliot’s poem says about the inner lives of characters in Pet Semetary, The Shining, Doctor Sleep, and the Bill Hodges series—how the words connect those characters, how it reflects their exhaustion or isolation, and so on. But she also gets into what reading King taught her about “Prufrock,” which in turn says a lot about the ways in which our relationship to fiction and poetry can change as we do.
Mercifully, there is no sign that Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats, has any great influence on King’s work, though the film adaptation does look like a bit of a nightmare.