Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Rules of King

“I read the whole thing, all 1,000-plus pages of it, and it was bad. Not just bad, it was really awful. He’s had all of this time, and he’s not even a good writer. And the ending! It was aliens. Aliens! All of that for aliens.”

This was the reaction a friend of mine had after reading a recent novel by horror master Stephen King. When I heard this, I felt a twinge of disappointment, maybe even some sadness. The novel in question has been sitting on my shelf for some time, one of those “I’ll get to it soon” books that sits and sits and sits on the shelf or bedside table, reminding you of just how much time you don’t have. When she told me this, I knew I would never read the book. Not because she ruined the ending, but because she confirmed my belief that I should not be reading Stephen King anymore. I have read Stephen King for most of my life, starting around age 12 when I secretly read a copy of The Stand I found in my father’s closet. In fact, several of the most vivid and endearing memories I have as a reader come from King, or “Uncle Stevie,” as he annoyingly calls himself. And the fact that these memories came from middle school doesn’t seem to stop me from continuing to pick up Stephen King novels to this day. But, like my friend, I never enjoy them. Sometimes they even make me angry. I have vowed on more than one occasion never to read him again, but always find myself with the desire to read just one more before I swear him off for good. Like everything in life, however, we need rules, and here, dear reader, are 5 hard and fast rules to successfully enjoy your next Stephen King novel.

1. Monsters Are Just Monsters, Never Metaphors. Horror works best when it takes our fears, our insecurities, our foibles, and projects them back to us in forms that we can digest without truly feeling any real sense of their presence. Thus in Rosemary’s Baby, a mother’s fears and worries for her unborn child are turned into demonic possession, and in every Nightmare movie from the 80’s (and in the many offshoots and copycats these films inspired) rampant teenage sexuality leads to a gruesome death from a dream figure. In a Stephen King novel, however, the monsters are real monsters, not symbols. They are present and exist for the sole purpose of scaring the hell out of us. The clown in the center of It goes no deeper than the sewers and drainpipes he inhabits. Cujo is just a rabid dog hell-bent on terrorizing a woman stranded in a car. Annie Wilkes from Misery is nothing more than a deranged fan wanting a better ending for the romance heroine she adores. These “monsters” offer us nothing below the printed page. They aren’t showing the reader anything they don’t already suspect is true. Childhood can be a scary place, dogs can be mean and dangerous, and some people are just plain nuts. The images, and what King produces best are images, don’t go much further from what they appear to be and are as thin as the page or roll of film they are often printed on. But King doesn’t really need them to do so, nor does he appear to want to. Misery is a ton of fun, a great afternoon read, and one that I always keep a copy of in my house. (I picked it up recently and accidently spent an hour flipping through the book, reading sections here and there to great delight.) Cell, published in 2006, is a 200-page zombie-romp that is as much fun as a 3-D movie at the drive-in. King’s best horrors don’t care to scare up old childhood wounds or sexual insecurities, but give us a fun-house jolt and then leaves us be. Read them for what they are.

2. The Ending Will Disappoint. Stephen King can set up the premise of a novel like nobody’s business. An antique store opens that has the one item each person needs...for a price. An ancient Indian burial ground has the power to resurrect the dead…and their horrors. A deadly superflu sweeps the nation, leaving only a handful of survivors to start over…and battle an even darker force. His books seem written for a books jacket. And yet he cannot finish a novel satisfactorily. He doesn’t so much seem unable to end his books with the power and imagination as he sets them up, as much as he seem uninterested in doing so. He likes the beginnings. King leads you down an interesting, dark, and sometimes frightening path with a masterful force, only to leave you angry you followed such a freak of a person in the first place. His novels, as a rule, crescendo into nothing. They “harumph out,” as I like to call it. So how to combat this problem? The answer is simple. Stop reading 50 pages before the end and imagine your own ending. 9/10 times yours will be better, no matter the size of your imagination. You could have never gotten into the “Pet Semetary” alone, but you can certainly find your own way out.

3. Longer Is Not Better. King is legendary for writing loooong novels, doorstops disguised as books. He has been quoted as saying he has the opposite of writer’s block, unable to stop spilling words onto the page. His body of work proves this. Most of his novels are more than 500 pages. It, The Stand, Under the Dome, and The Dark Tower series even clock it at well over 1,000 pages. The “Author’s Statement” that ends the 509 page Lisey’s Story (2006) refutes a common criticism of King’s work, that he needs to know when to stop and make cuts. He graciously thanks the novel’s editor, Nan Graham, and offers to “submit sample pages from my first-draft manuscript” to prove the work she did. Editor or not, skip King’s bigger novels. Long novels take time to read, and they take away from reading other, sometimes better novels. With King, the longer the novel, the greater the disappointment, and sometimes that disappointment feels closer to anger. I vividly remember trying my hardest to finish one of his 600-pagers on a car trip, if only so I could have it out of my life. When I was done, I made an oath never to read King again, and contemplated throwing the book onto the highway. The long ones simply aren’t worth it. On the other hand…

4. Shorter is Worse. You can also skip his short stories. He has published several collections of short fiction over the years, and while some of the stories are effective (“The Boogeyman” from Night Shift comes to mind), most are pure rotten. Some are even embarrassing. “Rock and Roll Heaven,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, about a couple trapped in, you guessed it, rock and roll heaven, makes one wonder how he ever got published in the first place. “The Lawnmower Man,” about a runaway lawn mower, even got made into a movie. Stay far far away from the short stories. Instead, seek out the 200-300 page novels, ones that can be consumed quickly, without much effort. Even better are his novellas, which usually come four per book. Most King fans swear by “The Body” from Different Seasons, which was later adapted into Stand By Me. My personal favorite is Four Past Midnight, which contains a story with an image of a dildo that has forever been burned into my brain.

5. When In Doubt, Read The Shining. Really, it doesn’t get any better than King’s third novel, published way back in 1977. The classic tale of the Torrance family’s nightmare winter in the Overlook Hotel is as scary as a novel can get, and inspired one of the most dreadfully iconic phrases in recent memory with “RedRum.” This is the King novel that has it all: a perfect set-up, masterful characterization, and a final section that is as terrifying as anything you will ever read. (You will never look at a topiary garden again in the same way.) In the Torrance family, King has found his perfect balance of entertainment, and, yes, art. Jack Torrance, the recovering alcoholic who moves his family into a snowed-under and haunted hotel to write his novel, is King’s most terrifying monster, a well-meaning father whose inner-demons slowly begin to destroy him and his loving family. It is near impossible to read the novel without picturing Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, but don’t let Stanley Kubrick’s equally-engrossing 1980 film version keep you away from the novel. Kubrick is able to capture some of King’s horror in vivid detail (“Here’s Johnny!”), but misses much of the sadness that runs through the novel’s center. The Shining is a pulpy ghost story on the surface, but ultimately it is the humans in the novel who are the most horrifying. Shine on, Uncle Stevie.


  1. I agree with almost everything you say here, especially about The Body, being his best work and the monster in The Shining having real metaphorical weight behind it. I more or less quit reading Stephen King when Misery was on the shelves at the grocery store in my neighborhood, but I do go back to The Shining at least once a year, and it always scares the hell out of me.

    I was wondering why you didn't mention his On Writing, which is a whole different beast.

    (By the way, there is some godawful story in one of the short story collections where he has some toy that actually attacks him with like little army men? And then in the end, he and his entire apartment get blown up with a thermonuclear warhead? Wow. It's just beyond dumb.

  2. I'm hoping you've never strayed into Richard Bachman territory.

    I'm to agree with your comments above, though I do think Carrie is an excellent book that does tap into some deeper stuff, but I'm also going to say "who cares?" I read Stephen King for entertainment, entertainment on an middle school thrill level, but entertainment none-the-less.

    While the ending to Under the Dome does disappoint, I think there was a Twilight Zone episode with the same ending, the book does entertain. Even at 1000 plus pages, it can be read in a couple of days.

  3. I completely agree with everything you said but I also really liked Firestarter as well. But again, the ending was awful after such a great build-up.

  4. Sorry, posted too early...The Shining is one of the creepiest books and movies ever. I loved how Joey in Friends hid it in the freezer which seemed like a reasonable place to put it to me. I often thought the unseen is just as terrifying as the seen. I suggest Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves for further proof (especially the footnotes)

  5. Even though it was my most enjoyable King reading experience, I didn't mention On Writing because it is an entirely different beast than what King is famous for. It really belongs in its own category and is one I would like to read again. For me, King is a thing of nostalgia, and I have great admiration for him for that era of my reading life. I really hope he can pull something truly great out of his big bag of tricks one day, but I am not holding my breath. I did just see that he has announced a new book for fall called 11/22/63, a 1,000 pager that centers on time travel and the JFK assassination. I will just wait for the movie.


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