Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dear Stephen King: Build a time machine, go back to 1990 and retire THEN

There was a time when no one was a more ardent fan of Stephen King's fiction than I was. During the first fifteen years of his career as a name-brand author, I couldn't get enough of his work. I even held off reading The Eyes of the Dragon and The Dark Tower series, like a survivalist squirreling away packs of Fig Newtons and RC Cola beneath the cot in a bomb shelter -- I knew King couldn't write forever and I wanted some gems to look forward to.

No artist is without fault or flaw. Some of Stephen King's novels that I enjoyed very much were overwritten and filled with flabby, should've-been-edited-out flourishes. Much as King's critics hammered him for his endless product placements and dated pop culture name-dropping, my focus was always on the stories. And so many of his stories were very entertaining.

King's novel The Dark Half was the first new-release hardcover I ever purchased. I devoured it and wasn't disappointed. It wasn't the greatest of Stephen King stories, but everything I enjoyed about King's style was present in that novel: his ability to sketch in full scenes and characters in a few deft lines; the interesting-genial-stranger narrative voice; his nearly seamless traversing of the boundary separating reality from the fantastic; and a story that was somehow telegraphed throughout the entire book, but somehow managed to present itself as a surprise.

The next indication that Stephen King was capable of poor publishing decisions was confirmed with the release of The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition. Ask any long-time Stephen King fan what their favorite King novel is and they will tell you, "The Stand." The original release was nothing short of brilliant. Had it not been published by a young writer who, by 1978, had been pigeon-holed as a "horror writer," it would have won The National Book Award for Fiction that year. The story is epic, endlessly engrossing, written with an eye for detail and humanity that would have shocked and amazed Charles Dickens. The novel is enormous, but leaves most readers voracious for more.

The 1990 release of The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition was that more. I dove into the novel and didn't look back. Although I enjoyed it, I felt an almost guilty sense of disloyalty to my love for The Stand because, having received more, I realized unequivocally that the originally published, edited version published in 1978 was far superior. The more of the expanded edition was filled with lateral and parallel moreness, but there was absolutely no more depth to the novel. In fact, the increased breadth of the book actually overwhelmed and diluted its original entrancing depth. I was honestly and foolishly shocked to find that more didn't mean better.

On the heels of that jarring realization, I bought King's collection of four novels, Four Past Midnight. After the disappointment of The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition, I was looking for confirmation that I could rely upon Stephen King. Four Past Midnight was confirmation, all right, but not the sort I sought. That poor book provided me with one of the first groundshaking indications that Stephen King might be human -- or, at least, that his seemingly boundless talent may have human boundaries on it. Each of the four stories was flat, forced, canned and to varying degrees, stupid.

Needful Things came out next. It was billed as the final story set in King's fictional town of Castle Rock. I duly bought the novel and thought it was absolutely dreadful -- a genuine, unquestionable piece of shit. In every other line, King appeared to be cracking a joke -- filling each paragraph with horrible quicksand soft spots that made the story interminable. The physical descriptions of his characters were absurd caricatures, again, geared more toward forced, misplaced humor than storytelling. I recall one description in particular of an overweight woman that left the reader with the mental of image of a creature that was barely human. Certainly, there are overweight people abundant in real life, and they have every right to appear in novels, but King seemed incapable of describing any of his characters in terms that were not cartoonish, or simply silly or stupid.

I soon ditched Needful Things without even finishing it, moving on to Gerald's Game, an entire novel written from the perspective of a woman handcuffed to the matrimonial bed, whose naked husband lay dead nearby after she'd kicked him soundly and directly in his erect penis. There's only one way to describe Gerald's Game: complete and utter piece of shit; an irredeemable, unreadable piece of shit; should-never-have-been-published piece of shit. I read more of that than I did of Needful Things, and the further I got, the more apparent it became that Gerald's Game was simply one of those ideas/manuscripts that most other writers would have written, and tossed out. But Stephen King, rich man though he is, over-published author though he is, somehow insists on publishing literally everything that comes into his mind. Maybe the childhood poverty he endured scarred him the point where he has to gather in every nickel his once-phenomenal talent drummed up, and every further nickel his established name mints. But Gerald's Game simply had no business being in print.

It did, however, give way to a sort of "sister novel", Dolores Claiborne. I didn't buy that one, but a friend had it and I read some of it. I was told the story was good (the movie was decent), but I couldn't even begin to get into book because of the bizarre way in which Stephen King decided to write the novel. Somewhere in the 1980s, King stopped using apostrophes in slang words in his dialogue. Goin' became Goin, Thinkin' became Thinkin, Go get 'em became Go get em, and so on. Dolores Claiborne is written in the voice of the novel's namesake, an uneducated, backwoods woman from Maine, who omits more "g"s in her dialogue than the entire cast of The Grapes of Wrath combined. As a consequence, the overall typographical and readability effect of this omission is that the narrative is more graffiti than text. I realize the novel is the confession of an uneducated person who is probably not current on the rules of grammar and punctuation, but that could have been easily gotten around by adding to the story that the original handwritten confession had been transcribed by a court stenographer or something.

At that point in his career, I stopped paying attention to Stephen King's output. I figured my interest is his work had been a youthful fancy. But every once in a long while, I would reread a short story in King's short story collection Skeleton Crew and instantly reconnect with my old fondness for his work. I reread the 1978 edition of The Stand and sadly found that I enjoyed it virtually as much as the first time I'd read it. 'Salem's Lot has remained one of my favorite novels since I first read it in 1987. I reread it at least once a year. Its clunks and awkward spots become more apparent with each reading, but so does the genius of Stephen King in his prime. His hungry prime.

When On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I would have none of it. I recall my wife pointing it out to me once in Costco, and I scoffed saying I'd never read another piece of shit by Stephen King. Later, I learned she had already bought me the book for Christmas. I laughed at myself when I opened the gift, and even cracked the book open to have a look rather than simply trade it in at the local used bookstore. And somehow, the old Stephen King emerged in that strange, wonderful book. I had always found stories of King's poor years very inspiring, and pored over descriptions of him working on his early stories and novels on a manual typewriter on a child's desk that rested on his knees. Then I got into his nuts-and-bolts advice about writing and was astounded by how useful it was. I started implementing the advice in my own work immediately and actually started to sell some stories to magazines. The most interesting part about reading all that good advice was why Stephen King would not use it in his own work.

Much as I enjoyed On Writing, it didn't bring me back into the fold. I was no longer a Stephen King fan. Although I hadn't yet read The Eyes of the Dragon or The Dark Tower series, I gave up on them. At the same time, I began to see Stephen King novels reviewed on arts shows on television. Strangely, the writer who was once despised by mainstream critics was now receiving praise. I recall on CBC's On the Arts, King's novel Bag of Bones receiving a rave review. I heard about him publishing in The New Yorker. And then came the National Book Award 2003: "Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" and the O. Henry Award 1996 for "The Man in the Black Suit."

Around 2000 I listened to the audio book edition of Bag of Bones, read by Stephen King himself. I was astonished -- it was an abject, unequivocal piece of shit. The characters were caricatures, the dialogue was terrible, canned, contrived. The story was forced and contorted and ridiculous. It was also grossly overwritten; paragraphs and paragraphs of description that covered territory the old Stephen King could cover in a few fine-tuned sentences.

Sometime after that, out of sheer morbid curiosity, I tried the audio book of Dreamcatcher. It was worse than Bag of Bones. It was the work of a fool. It was the hatchet work of a hack. Surely, no outside reader saw the manuscript, and certainly no editor gave a look beyond the author's name on the cover page. All it needed to say was "Stephen King" and it was doubtless rushed to the printer without a single sober, critical eye ever seeing it. There's just no way any credible, serious, responsible person saw the manuscript. They never would have allowed it into print. It paled in professionalism even to the very dismal Gerald's Game. It was garage-sale-novel-writing: King rounding up every stray, unused, unusable piece of shit idea in his head thrown into a single manuscript and set on the front lawn for some idiot to purchase.

And so I parted company with the work of Stephen King. I still admire the man, and have a great fondness and nostalgia for the works he created during the first 15 years of his professional career. Whenever I've seen him interviewed, I've always been impressed by his wit and insight. He'd be a hell of a guy to sit with at a BBQ or in the stands at a ball game. He appears to be an extremely gifted and interesting conversationalist. I just don't care much for his book anymore.

Two days ago I received Stephen King's latest novel, Under the Dome, for Christmas. From the moment it was announced and the plot was known, media commentators have pointed out the weird similarity between its story and that of The Simpsons Movie, in which Springfield is suddenly enclosed within a transparent, impenetrable dome. Even stranger, Stephen King -- master of all things pop culture -- has floated the improbable story that he wrote the novel having no idea about The Simpsons Movie. That's impossible. It's just impossible. This from the author mentions every fleeting one-hit-wonder and every passing fad in his novels, whose work -- at times -- is painfully and needlessly dated by these references. There is simply no way Stephen King didn't know about The Simpsons Movie.

That aside, I'm reading the novel. Enough time has gone by that I can do so with a clear eye and with a few more defenses against the inevitable disappointment. To his credit, King has so far -- in the first 100 pages of his 1,000-page novel -- done a good job of containing the frustrated comedian in his narrative voice. There are even a few decent turns of phrase. There are also some really embarrassing moments of dialogue, particularly between a doctor attending a tween skateboarder. It's as though Stephen King either watched a bunch of episodes of Saved By the Bell or simply looked up contemporary youth idiom on Wikipedia because it couldn't be more awkward, embarrassing and ridiculous. The doctor thinking he'd impress the kid by saying something was "radical." Holy shit, I actually physically cringed when I read that.

One interesting thing I've noticed reading this novel: the longer Stephen King writes, the more novels he produces, it seems that his confidence in his ability to describe scenes has diminished. Everything -- and I mean everything -- is over described. It's either that King doesn't trust his ability to be brief and on target, or, worse, that he believes his readers are idiots who need mundane points driven home with all subtlety and artfulness cast aside.

And there was this hunk of lazy writing that any first year writing student would be embarrassed to have appear in their weekly creative writing package:
Regarding character Dodee Sanders: "And when it came to brainpower . . . jeez, what could you say? Her father -- Andy Sanders, The Mill's First Selectman -- would never be a Mensa candidate, but Dodee made him look like Albert Einstein."
Terrible. Yeah, it's one example, but this kind of lazy writing appears through the 100 pages I've read so far, to varying degrees. King's in such a hurry to finish writing one book so it came be packaged and sold, and he can get on to the next bit of product. And this from a guy who is supposed to be retired.

Stephen King seems like a nice guy and I believe much of his best work has taken horribly undeserved drubbings from critics in years previous. From the "afterword"s I've read in many of his books, he hasn't been able to live with this too easily. The money his work brings in certainly hasn't been a consolation for the critical bed-panning of his work. Now that King is honestly writing crap, his work now receives reasonably decent reviews. And he continues churning out the sausage. I guess he believes in the philosophy articulated by Mike Love to Brian Wilson back in the 1960s when Wilson embarked on his aborted masterpiece, Smile: "Don't fuck with the formula." Spoken like a true artist. And it seems that the Stephen King Doorstop Factory will also continue with its own formula un-fucked-with. Which is an honest and wretched shame, because there was a time when Stephen King really could write.

For what it's worth, here's my appraisal of Stephen King's work, divided into three categories. He's written more books than are listed here. I only comment on novels of his that I've actually read or attempted to read:

The Good Books
  • Carrie
  • 'Salem's Lot
  • Night Shift
  • The Stand
  • Dead Zone
  • Firestarter
  • Cujo
  • Different Seasons
  • Christine
  • Pet Sematary
  • Thinner
  • Skeleton Crew
  • The Bachman Books
  • It
  • Misery
  • The Dark Half
  • On Writing

The Sloppy Books
  • The Shining
  • Cycle of the Werewolf
  • The Talisman
  • The Tommyknockers
  • Four Past Midnight
  • Dolores Claiborne
  • The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition
  • Nightmares & Dreamscapes
  • Under the Dome

The Garbage Books
  • Gerald's Game
  • Needful Things
  • Hearts in Atlantis
  • Dreamcatcher
  • Bag of Bones
  • Blaze


Robert Earl Stewart said...

The Shining, Needful Things, and the uncut version of The Stand are amongst my favourite King novels. And where's The Tommyknockers? That one rocked my world by a northern lake in about 1990. I stopped reading King after Gerald's Game, though. That was brutal.

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

I forgot to list Tommyknockers under "Sloppy Books." King's frustrated comedian took the helm on that one. The idea was cool, the story was interesting, but the execution was horrible -- King decided to tell the story as though it was a comic monologue. I read it when I was right in the strike zone of my fandom and it really slapped me back onto my heels. Every other line King was cracking a joke. Cool if he wanted to write a comic novel, but it wasn't a comic novel.

Julie said...

I was a hardcore King fan when I was a teenager and young adult. The Shining was the first adult novel I ever read. I was 12 years old. He made me want to become a writer. Plus, we have the same birthday - September 21.

When I read Needful Things (about 20 years ago!), however, I was so disgusted I stopped reading him, with the exception of On Writing, which I really enjoyed for the same reasons you did. I see I haven't missed anything.

It's the same story with so many writers, musicians, etc. Their creativity burns out, but they keep going because of pressure from their agents or other higher ups, or from fear that they'll run out of money.