King of Summer
by Wayne Wise
Publish America, 2002
Trade Paperback, 253 Pages
Review by Mark Best
King of Summer (Publish America, 2002) is the first novel by Wayne Wise. In one of his incarnations, Wise is a member of the Pittsburgh comics' "scene" who has been associated with various comic book projects and stores in the Pittsburgh area over the years; thus the presence of this review here. Set in the present in a small town in western Pennsylvania, King of Summer is a dark fantasy about a group of young teenagers who must band together to stop a supernatural menace, the Winter King, from escaping its prison in a nearby lake and bringing evil and destruction down upon the world. As the characters piece together their understanding of this threat and gradually come to believe in it, they learn that they are faced with the same task as another group of local kids 70 years before.
From the book's cover, on which a hand holding a knife emerges from a lake, the reader knows going in that the novel will involve Arthurian themes and motifs. In the first few pages, Artie, the novel's 12-year-old hero, falls into the lake and is given a pocket knife by a girl who died in 1932. Along with Artie, the reader is plunged into a world rich with Arthurian archetypes. These range from individual characters to major structures of the plot.
Specialized knowledge of King Arthur is not necessary to enjoy the novel. For readers (like me), whose knowledge of King Arthur comes mainly from Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Excalibur, certain expectations are set up, such as Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery or the quest for the Grail. We wonder how Wise can work these into the lives of contemporary American adolescents. He does not disappoint, and some necessary elements, such as Camelot and the round table, come as neat surprises. For the reader well-versed in Arthurian legend, the novel offers the added pleasure of playing spot the references, some quite obscure.
Recognizing the character archetypes is also useful early on-- when we are first introduced to the fairly large cast-- to help keep track of who's who. Artie is the only obviously named character. There is no "Luke," "Gwen," or "Merle." However, character traits and relationships (and the occasional first initial of a name) make identification of the major characters and their roles quite easy. Merlin is the only tricky one (click here for hint). Everybody is somebody, and taking the time to find out who everybody is (unnecessary, but fun) can expand the reader's knowledge of Arthurian romance considerably.
Despite Wise's skill at adapting Arthurian legend, if that were all King of Summer had going for it, the novel would run the risk of being just quaint pastiche. Fortunately, Wise proves to be equally adept at portraying contemporary American adolescence. He offers us a wide range of varied and well-developed characters, often using minor details to add depth to each one. One girl's fingernails, described early in the novel as "chewed and covered in chipped bubblegum pink polish," hint at her status as a "bad" girl from the poor part of town and give us insight into the hopelessness that comes with it (not to mention providing the basis for one of the novel's most striking images at its conclusion). Similarly, Wise hints that Artie's older sister Wren, who loosely corresponds to Morgan le Fey, has an eating disorder. However, he chooses never to address this problem directly or resolve it. Instead, this information serves to add depth to our understanding of the almost paralyzing anxieties that plague her throughout the novel. Such details add texture to King of Summer that makes reading it much more pleasurable than just following the plot.
Alienation is a normal quality in these kids' lives. The teenagers who confronted the Winter King 70 years earlier already shared the common bond of their baseball team. In the present, Artie's task of uniting his friends seems almost more difficult than dealing with the novels supernatural evil. Indeed, this is a key theme of the novel, and each moment of divisiveness is a victory for the Winter King. While occasionally characters receive a supernatural nudge from the presence in the lake, more often their own differences, fears, or self-absorption is sufficient to further the advance of evil in the world. For example, a birthday party put on for Artie by his sister provides the perfect opportunity for these friends to come together around Artie and confirm his status as their "leader." Instead, Wise shows us small cliques drifting into different rooms or focusing only on the videogame in front of them. The result of this moment of disunity is sudden and tragic disaster.
Wise is equally adept at showing adolescent joys. For example, he combines the thrill of riding a bicycle at full tilt with the freeze-frame experience of glimpsing a new girl for the first time, shifting the rhythm of his writing to a heart-thumping, staccato pace, to convey the giddiness of love at first sight: "The next five seconds of Chris's life would live forever in his memory. Even though his bike was moving at tremendous speed, his world came to a complete halt. It was a moment that he would be able to recall in minute detail for the rest of his life. His grandchildren would ask him to repeat the story." Wise goes on to describe those minute details, and so convinces us that this kid's experience is genuine. Likewise, the moments throughout the novel when these young teens do succeed in overcoming their differences and facing their fears are powerful, especially when conveyed through the novel's Arthurian imagery. Thus, building a fort by a lake or hanging out in a gazebo takes on potent, new meaning. King of Summer is a novel about redemption, even though, as Wise wittily notes, some of the young characters are unaware of such a word.
Nonetheless, King of Summer is a horror novel, and Wise skillfully combines the adolescent fears, anxieties, and capacity for cruelty of the novel's cast with the more explicitly supernatural horrors (and there are many) that his story presents. The only adult character in the novel with a speaking role, one of the few remaining members of the group that faced the Winter King in the 1930s, explicitly states the relationship between the supernatural evil of the Winter King and evil in the world as we know it. Now senile and in a retirement home, he explains to one of the kids in a moment of lucidity that awareness of the Winter King is the privilege of the young. Adults would fail to perceive its evil, instead accepting seemingly everyday hatred and anger, growing incrementally along with the Winter King's power, as "normal." In other words, Wise suggests that such supernatural evil is not so different from the evil of which people are already perfectly capable.
The young people in the novel are aware of the Winter King's threat not because they are "innocent," in the sense of naive or somehow morally "pure." (Indeed, these kids engage in very authentic adolescent behaviors.) Rather, Wise has located his adolescent characters squarely in an American literary tradition shared by authors ranging from Mark Twain to Stephen King: their youth gives them a special and privileged insight into the world around them. For the record, in addition to exploring how evil works in his world, Wise also provides plenty of opportunities for the more traditional pleasures of horror fiction. King of Summer has its adequate share of both creeping suspense and gore; there is, after all, a monster in the lake. This scenario invites comparisons to Stephen King's It. Likewise, the novel's recurrent use of baseball and the weather might beg comparisons to another coming of age novel, Michael Chabon's recent Summerland.
However, what sets King of Summer apart from both and makes it remarkable (perhaps more remarkable than either) is not Wise's use of Arthurian legend, but the way he skillfully balances it with his depiction of adolescent experience. These kids do not know that they are living in a thinly veiled Arthurian fantasy, but we do. Thus, when Artie falls in the lake at the beginning of the novel, his first thoughts are not that he is going to die, but rather that his death would lead to his friends being forbidden to hang out at the lake, and so ruin their summer. On the one hand, Artie's reaction suggests typical adolescent worries about what his peers will think of him. On the other, it suggests a capacity to place his friends before himself and to worry about their needs, qualities that Wise convinces us this twelve-year-old kid shares with King Arthur, and so, along with a pocket knife from a dead girl in a lake, establish him rightfully as the king of summer.
retail price - $21.95
copacetic price - $20.85
price and availablity current as of 6 May 2003