Stephen King : Reflections On It All
So now the pressure is fully on my shoulders. The whole point of this project has been to read the works of Stephen King and reflect somehow on how his writing style has progressed and changed over the decades. I don’t know if I’m capable of providing the big fireworks display finale that completely draws it all together in one shocking climax, but I will present what thoughts I have, in as organized a manner as is possible for a brain as small as mine.
I have been a fan of Stephen King since I was in grade school. And I will be the first to admit that there were probably a number of titles that I probably should have been kept away from at that age, but I had been reading passionately for quite some time when I picked up my first Stephen King book and fortunately for me I had parents who supported and trusted my development. I don’t think you can accurately make any single across-the-board statement when it comes to what your kids should or shouldn’t be allowed to read. I think that is a an incredibly personal question that parents must deal with and I think a lot of that depends on the specific child and their situation as well.
It’s also possible that my reading of Stephen King at a fairly young age was facilitated somewhat by the fact that he was such a huge phenomenon at the time. That’s not to say that he isn’t a big name now but I would argue that in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was in junior high and high school, Stephen King was much more of a buzzword and culturally relevant then he is now, necessarily. In 2017, I see the popularity of King largely as a continuation of that era when he was a massive figure on the landscape of popular culture. I recall even my grade school having some Stephen King books in their library. There was a series of posters from that era that schools often had on display, featuring various celebrities promoting books and libraries. And one of those posters featured none other than Stephen King, with the caption “Stephen King for America’s libraries”. I would be willing to bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a Stephen King book in as many grade school libraries nowadays.
So the point I’m trying to make with this is that obviously I have been a fan of King for a long time. And the argument certainly could be made that my nostalgia for these books of my childhood is driving my continued interest and passion for his work. But what I find is that over the course of my life, I keep coming back to his books, not because I need that remembrance of something that was important when I was a child, but rather that I continue to find things to like in his writing regardless of what age I am at.
I see Stephen King’s career as going through several distinct phases. And please remember that as you read this, I am in no way connected to anyone in the King family. This is not intended to be a definitive psychological workup of Stephen King. These are just the superficial observations of one lowly outsider.
Early on, I see King going through pretty much every phase other authors go through at the start of their career. In other words, how the hell do I get my work noticed amongst this mountain of other literature? It really feels like you against the world. And for as many challenges as authors face today, I suspect that this was no easier for writers in the mid seventies.
Imagine this problem, amplified by the fact that, pre-Internet, people were much more isolated from others who might be of like mind. It isn’t like Stephen King could just log onto Facebook and start networking with all of his author friends from around the world. At that time, I can easily imagine writers suffering alone with their typewriter, feeling like they’re off on a siege that no one can help with or really truly understand.
As such, it’s interesting to look at books he published primarily during this period of his career. Books like Carrie, Salems Lot, The Shining, the Dead Zone and Firestarter. Interesting in that, in pretty much all of these stories, we see younger characters who, either through some ability or knowledge or life experience, have been isolated from the rest of the world, left to fend for themselves in fear from forces they don’t really understand or comprehend. Is it possible that the lives of Carrie White, Ben Mears, Stu Redmam, Johnny Smith and Charlie McGee were heightened metaphors of certain aspects of King’s life? Again, I have no idea. But it’s hard to not see these experiences as an unconscious reflection of the struggles and fear involved with striking out into a new profession, with an extremely low probability of success and feeling completely alone in the world.
Another factor we know Stephen King’s life to be plagued by was the real world demon of addiction. Too many people are taken apart and left for dead by this monster that cares not for who you are, where you come from, how much money you have or how good of a person you are. Addiction only fulfills its purpose. It destroys and it kills.
As such, I can’t help but take note of the fact that so many of his books during the eighties deal with similarly powerful and implacable monsters. The Man In Black, Pennywise, Christine, the dark forces in Pet Semetary, Cujo and Annie Wilkes (who King himself has stated is basically a metaphor for cocaine).
It goes without saying that this aspect of his life’s story came with a happy ending, thanks to the intervention at the hands of his family. But there had to have been a period where this ending was by no means assured. I would imagine that there are as many people (if not more) who fail to get off of drugs as succeed, and the route to victory goes straight through a personal hell that few of us can really understand.
I see King’s book, The Dark Half, as the definitive fault line between the phases of his life, pre and post-sobor. First of all, the book was angry. Much more in tone than anything I can think of reading before that. George Stark’s actions are violent and brutal and I thought for King, much more graphic than most of his previous writings. And let’s not ignore the fact that in this book, a novelist is literally being hunted by an aspect of himself. And this is a theme he seemed invested in as it would show itself again in his novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden.
The next book that would follow, Four Past Midnight would have a similarly dark and intense tone to it and for me, it seemed like everything related to his addictions seemed to culminate with Needful Things. It was a book he labeled as being “The Last Castle Rock Story”, almost as if he was trying to metaphorically move on from a phase of his life as well as literally. And I think it’s no coincidence that Leland Gaunt could fairly be categorized as the world’s original drug dealer. And what ultimately happens to him? He’s defeated, but in a way that we also know he’s still lurking out there, taking in new victims and readying for a fresh round of mayham.
I can imagine that for years leading up to this point, Stephen King had dealt with the frustration of being boxed in with people’s expectations. Fans don’t always react well when artists try new things. Stephen King is the master of horror, right? I have read an account that on some level, in addition to drugs, Annie Wilkes also represented King’s feelings of being held hostage by his genre.
I bring this up here because the nineties would come to represent a major departure for King from his tried and true subject matters, into other genres and other ideas. It’s a time period that a lot of his fans identify as being when they began to lose interest in his books.
I’ve wondered at times what might have happened differently with King’s career if he had stuck it out with what he had done before and I have to admit that I think it likely could have ended up exactly the same. He was trying to keep his books fresh and unique. For some, that succeeded and for others it was a failure. But I think that even if he had gone in the other direction and stuck with pure horror, it’s just as likely that the accusations leveled would be that the nineties were a bland recitation of the eighties. Ultimately, there are just some people who can’t be satisfied and I think if anyone understands that, it’s Stephen King.
And I will be the first to admit that many of King’s books in the nineties and beyond came off as flat and unexciting for me. I’ve discussed this point thoughout many of the individual reviews but I don’t think being critical of his work makes you less worthy as a fan. I’ve never held to the notion that you have to love every thing an artist produces in order to call yourself a “true” fan.
Following his victory over addiction as well as his near fatal accident, I think King gave himself more permission to write the kind of books he wanted, as opposed to falling in line with the kinds of stories that would be expected from the “king of horror”.
And I suppose I should address the elephant in the room, the one combined work that spans across most of his career.
The Dark Tower.
This series was a huge part of my life and the constant waiting for the next volume made the new books that much sweeter when they came out. This has been defined and accepted by the fans as Stephen King’s most important work and the super-fans out there never seem to grow tired of drawing connections from one character in this book to another character in the next. For me, I tend to keep the scope of the Dark Tower books more limited than many. For me, The Dark Tower is about telling a great epic and I don’t worry myself with endless theorizing on subjects that I don’t feel are really supported by the book. So with a few exceptions, I see the stories in the Dark Tower as self-contained. Whether they are intertwined with all of his books or not, it doesn’t really matter to me. For me, its just a great series of books.
What can I say overall about the “King legacy”? Being totally honest, I think I’d say that if Dolores Claiborne had been King’s first book instead of somewhere in the middle, our view on him now would be quite different. I’ve heard it said that the success of his later books was at least somewhat built on the back of a phenomenally incredible decade and a half of writing, early on. I think it’s a fair criticism. And I don’t mean that in an entitled sense of, “How dare you stop writing what I want?” or from a place of, “Stephen King really lost his edge.”
Starting in the seventies and going into the eighties, Stephen King had one of the most prolific stretches of time that I think we have seen from any popular authors. There were years when he would publish multiple titles, each one being good enough to make a career on, individually. This was a rare example I think where you had a string of books that were both incredibly successful and incredibly good. And besides the books, billions of dollars in box office revenue has been spawned by material he wrote during that time.
That isn’t a pace that you maintain. That isn’t something you just keep up, indefinitely. Artists that are in that mode seem to go one of two ways. Either you slowly burn out or you detonate in spectacular fashion. And the latter was nearly what we ended up with.
So, is it possible that later readers of his books were more lenient in their criticism because of how much they loved his earlier books? As someone who likes to see himself as honest, I have to acknowledge that as a possibility.
It is also worth taking consideration of the fact that moving into the nineties and the new millennium, the horror genre definitely saw a dip in the popularity it enjoyed in the eighties. As such, a new Stephen King book would be received with much less fanfare in 1997 or in 2005 than it would have in 1984. Is it also possible that King used this to his advantage? Slipping in under cover of darkness in order to write the kind of stories he wanted? Again, I have to admit this is also a possibility. Between his trip to rehab and his near fatal accident some ten years later, I could completely understand how King could have come out with a new fervor for life, with a renewed determination to not let readers’ expectations steer the ship quite as much.
Do I think that Stephen King is less of a writer because he has the luxury of having his books classified as bestsellers before they even come out? I do not. Because the way I look at it, if he had succumbed to his addictions and was lost to the world in 1988, I think he still would have gone down in history as this generation’s Poe. So the qualitative analysis of all his work after that point doesn’t diminish that status in my eyes.
For me, the power of King’s stories has always been in his characters and I don’t think that aspect has diminished over the years. I’m finding myself as compelled by characters like Bill Hodges, Big Jim Rennie and Jake Epping as I was with Roland Deschain, Richie Tozier and Louis Creed. The stories themselves might not always be up to par, but the essential building blocks have been consistently strong. I think this is the main thing that has kept me coming back and feeling drawn to his books.
I think of Stephen King in a similar way as I think about the Beatles. I’ve always held the belief that there is at least one Beatles song for everyone. In similar fashion, I think there is at least one Stephen King book for everyone. At this point, his writing has become so diverse and varied, there’s likely something there even for people who claim to not like him. And also like the Beatles, you may not like him but if you’re a fan of the horror genre, chances are pretty good the authors you do love wouldn’t be who they are without Stephen King. Speaking as a writer I can definitely state that I owe a lot of what I am now to his works.
As artists grow more popular and more of a fixture on the landscape of popular culture, there is a natural pushback, a need by some to tear that artist apart. There are plenty of detractors of Stephen King but I truly believe that in a hundred or so years, people will be looking back on him in the same way they now do Poe or Lovecraft.
There was something under the surface of King’s writing that I was drawn to at a fairly young age. Something about the stories that I couldn’t deny or turn away from. And even today, after so many books under his belt, I still find the unconscious push to read onward.
I feel like I’m getting to the limit of what will likely be the patience of those reading this. So in the spirit of some closing thoughts, allow me just a few paragraphs more.
Growing up from a passionate fan of Stephen King as a youth and into adulthood, I turned my back on him, secure in my own superficial conclusion that he had simply lost his touch. That there would be no more new Stephen King books out there for me to enjoy. I closed myself off from that experience and I shut the door to that stage of my life.
Doing this project has really opened my eyes to the fact that while Stephen King has obviously changed as a writer over the years, as have I as a reader, there are still plenty of books throughout the later decades of his career that I have loved.
The main difference I would identify between the first half of his career and the second is that I think his books started in about the mid-nineties to feel more standalone. The references were still there but when I read the classic titles of the seventies and eighties, I had much more of a sense of an overall, unified narrative universe. And I’m guilty of projecting here again but this progression makes sense to me.
I could see a writer in his younger years being more enthusiastic about the creation of an overreaching fictional universe in which to place his books, drawing connective threads between them like a spider’s web. Then, as that writer gets older and experiences multiple life threatening transitions, maybe there is more of an urge to simply write the book and move on. After all, when you’ve likely made more money than you could ever spend in your life, why not scale things down and actually enjoy what has been gained from your hard work?
Rediscovering my love for Stephen King’s books has helped me also rediscover my love for reading in general. So I thought that this project was a perfect way to pay tribute to that. Stephen King certainly has his detractors and I am not interested in swaying them. This has been about my journey and my love for this author. Reading his work growing up was likely one of the best internships a budding author could have partaken in. So to say I am grateful doesn’t come even close to touching the reality.
Do I love all the books of Stephen King?
But I sure do love a lot of them.
In parting, I wanted to make sure I extended my thanks to you for sticking through this with me. Anyone who has been here, dropping in to check out the reviews over the years, thank you. Your support and interest has been appreciated. This was a labor of love, one I am happy to have seen through in its entirety and for how it has actually deepened my appreciation for King’s writing overall. So it is with a great deal of happiness that I am able to say this to you, one last time.
My name is Chad Clark and I am proud to be a Constant Reader.
Chad A. Clark is an author of horror and science fiction. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page