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Sunday, February 18, 2007

STEPHEN KING: ONE READER'S ASSESSMENT

My buddy John just got through reviewing the just-released comics adaptation of Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER — which can be read at his blog — and his words were not what I would call kind. This came as no surprise because I’m a King fan and have read many of his works, but THE DARK TOWER is the only book of his that I couldn’t finish, making it about halfway through the damned thing before I relegated it to the trash in disgust. I found it dull and pretentious, and while the resulting series does have its fans, judging from what I was able to read in the first volume I’m at a loss to explain how that’s possible. Maybe the subsequent books improved, but I’ll never attempt them.

But as I said, I am a King fan, and it’s easy these days to forget that he once was a wordsmith of considerable merit before churning out novels seemingly every other week. I discovered his stuff just about thirty years ago, and as a young horror fan I couldn’t get enough of his well-told, truly horrifying yarns, enjoying his writing in exactly the same way that I enjoyed hearing a hair-raising campfire yarn from a skilled raconteur. So what I’m going to do here is give you my list of the King books you should read — and you really should read them — plus a few of his books that outright sucked and therefore need to be flagged as trash.

CARRIE (1974)

This tragic tale of an unfortunate teen misfit who must endure the endless torments of adolescence, her evil peers, and her over-the-top-abusive psycho/religious nut mother is a real page turner, but the need to read it was rendered null and void by Brian DePalma’s excellent film version. The only reason to give the book a look is to see the title character as King originally intended her to look; Carrie White is described as fat, ugly, and cursed with terrible acne, and Sissy Spacek’s version in the movie is actually kind of cute, if not a little odd, so it’s hard to understand why she’s considered unattractive. The film builds audience sympathy by making the cruelty of the world surrounding Carrie downright unbearable, and if you can’t feel for her while watching the flick, then you simply have no heart.

SALEM’S LOT (1975)

The first great vampire novel of the latter twentieth century — way better than the limp-wristed, non-scary foofery of Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE — , King really starts feeling his narrative powers here, and the results are creepy like a motherfucker. I won’t even go into the story because you really should experience it for yourself, but it has some of the most frightening sequences I have ever read, some of which stand among the high points of the author’s career. Very strong stuff indeed.

THE SHINING (1977)

This claustrophobic ghost story is the very definition of the word creepy, and Jack Torrence’s descent into madness as the dire forces that infest the Overlook hotel influence him is harrowing in the extreme. Definitely worth your time, and much better than the admittedly atmospheric but not-scary film by Stanley Kubrick, a flick that polarizes horror geeks to this very day.

NIGHT SHIFT (1978)

This collection of short stories was my first exposure to King and I would recommend it as a perfect staring point for the newbie. There’s something for everybody in this grab bag of chills, and while there are a few clunkers, the gems really shine.

THE STAND (1978)

Gargantuan when first released and then later expanded into a “director’s cut” version, this epic about a plague that wipes out most of the global population and sets the stage for the final confrontation between Good and Evil is a rich and compelling page turner with a large and fascinating cast of characters — Nick Andros and Tom Cullen steal the book — and some truly unforgettable sequences, but the otherwise excellent story gets flushed down the toilet by one of the most trite and contrived gimmick endings in recorded history. It’s still worth reading, though, but be prepared for that asinine, quite literal “deus ex machina” of a closer.

THE DEAD ZONE (1979)

The tale of John Smith and his psychic “gift” is a strong contender for the best book King ever wrote and that’s not a statement to take lightly. Heart-breakingly sad and human, THE DEAD ZONE is an emotional roller coaster and a half, and from the moment that the hero emerges from a coma of several years with the ability to infallibly see the future you just know this book will not have a happy ending. During the course of his adventures, John Smith tries to discern why he was given his power, and when the answer is revealed it’s like a sledgehammer to the heart. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

FIRESTARTER (1980)

The first of King’s throwaway pieces, this sleight page-turner is fun nonetheless, but it doesn’t begin to approach the entertaining heights of the previous books. This story of a little girl with pyrokinetic abilities and her mind-controlling dad, both on the run from a top secret and very sinister government agency, reads like THE FUGITIVE with super-powers, and if any of King’s books was a natural for adapting into a comic book, this is it. This book was also adapted into a truly terrible film starring Drew Barrymore, and if it comes on cable throw your TV out the fucking window.

DANSE MACABRE (1981)

For the academically-minded horror fan, this non-fiction entry is a scholarly and thoroughly entertaining history of the horror genre, so if you care at all this is a must read. It’s great, but I would really like to see an updated edition that addresses the changes within horror since the 1980’s. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

CUJO (1981)

Allegedly penned while King was so coked-out that he doesn’t remember writing it, this is a taughtly-paced story of a mother and son trapped inside a stalled car in one-hundred-plus heat by a rabid St. Bernard. However, the novel-length format is definitely not warranted for this material and the whole thing would have been much better as a short story or a novella. And the movie’s merely so-so.

DIFFERENT SEASONS (1982)

This is a collection of three novellas and one short story, each supposedly highlighting the spirit of the four seasons. The short story, “The Breathing Method,” is reminiscent of an E.C. Comics TALES FROM THE CRYPT shocker, only if they’d been able to get away with the twisted image of a woman who’s just been beheaded in a car accident valiantly defying death just long enough to give birth after properly performing the breathing technique she learned in prenatal care classes, her severed head soldiering on several feet away from her laboring body. It’s the weakest entry in the collection, but that’s okay considering the heavy hitters it’s up against. “Apt Pupil” is a chilling character study of a young boy who discovers that an old man in his neighborhood is a Nazi war criminal and blackmails him into telling him the details of his time as an overseer in a WWII concentration camp. The two feed off of each other in a horrifying symbiosis and the result is one of King’s darkest, most disturbing non-supernatural yarns. “The Body” is a reminiscence of a group of adolescent boys and their bonding experience while on a quest to view an actual corpse and is quite good, but the book's main event is surely “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the excellent account of an innocent man’s decades of incarceration and misery in a corrupt and torturous prison. Absolutely riveting, the story was adapted into THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, the movie that many feel is the best King flick ever made, and they just may be right.

CHRISTINE (1983)

A partial return to form in full-length storytelling, this creeper about a high school loser’s eerie transformation once he acquires the title antique car isn’t bad, but it will be largely forgotten not long after you read it.

PET SEMETARY (1983)

Horror is a visceral genre, an avenue of storytelling that brings to the fore our deepest, most primal fears, and if properly conveyed that can be a thing of storytelling beauty and awe, and with the shattering PET SEMETARY King wrote what I consider not only his best work, but also one of the masterpieces of the entire horror genre. The truly nightmarish narrative introduces us to a sweet couple and their adorable toddler when they move to a town in Maine that houses an ancient Indian burial ground deep within its backwoods. Local legend has it that if you bury your recently deceased there they will return from the hereafter, and when the family cat is killed on a dangerous highway across the street from the family’s house, the legend is put to the test and yields a hideous reality… And that’s just the start of a maddening descent into family loss of the worst kind imaginable, and the unimaginable depths that a parent can sink to in the throes of crippling, irrational grief. Without question one of the bleakest books ever written by anyone, PET SEMETARY scared the living shit out of me when I first read it twenty-four years ago, and its impact has not diminished after the four times I’ve read it since. Seriously, read this one and know the truest, darkest meaning of the term “horror story.” HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF (1983)

I love me some werewolf stories and when I heard that King was undertaking a lupine yarn I was over the moon, so to speak. Until I read the book. CYCLE is definitely a tossed-off piece, offering alleged chills that wouldn’t pass muster in an issue of HOUSE OF SECRETS on its worst day, the only redeeming feature of which is some post-FRANKENSTEIN art by horror comics legend Berni Wrightson, and since he definitely burned out much of his genius illustrating those beautiful pieces, what’s on display here is only of note for Wrightson completists. Almost as complete a waste of time as the film version, SILVER BULLET.

SKELETON CREW (1985)

More short stories, but this collection doesn’t come close to the glories found in NIGHT SHIFT, save for the unbelievably gruesome SURVIVOR TYPE, an account of a castaway on an island totally devoid of food and the lengths he goes to in order to stave off hunger.

IT (1986)

For some reason this vastly overrated novel is enshrined by many as King’s finest hour, and I just don’t understand why. It’s about a group of adults who shared a terrifying experience as children, and when signs point to the same baleful presence rearing its head again in their hometown, they reunite for final combat with a creature that feeds on the fear of kids. It’s not badly written but it simply isn’t as good as I’d been lead to believe, and I was particularly put off by a tasteless kiddie gang bang scene that does figure into the plot but is just plain squirm-inducing on several levels. And the revelation of exactly what the Big Bad is falls thuddingly flat, especially after meeting it the guise of Pennywise the evil clown, or having read anything by H.P. Lovecraft. This book was the one that made me more or less give up reading every King novel when they came out, and from this point on I would only check in occasionally.

MISERY (1987)

A cracking good yarn about a romance novelist who ends up held captive by a psychotic fan, this is very enjoyable stuff. And while the film version was very good, it tones down a lot of what the book’s creepy vibe puts out, especially in regard to the “hobbling” sequence.

GERALD’S GAME (1992)

The only reason I read this was thanks to a good friend who hated it so much that she forever swore off King after it offended her to the core, so I was curious to see what was so godawful. It’s about a woman who gets handcuffed to a four-poster bed as part of an S&M game and gets intentionally left there by her bastard of a husband in hope that she’ll die in the middle of nowhere (the house is in a secluded location and no one knows she’s there). The rest of the book is her trying to figure out how to escape and it’s just not worth the effort to get through.

THE GREEN MILE (1996)

Loved by many, met with apathy by me, this story about a condemned gentle giant with Christlike healing powers is maudlin in the extreme. The black, Christlike version of Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN is a cliché character that I thought had died out in the late 1950’s, but obviously I was mistaken.

BAG OF BONES (1998)

Of the later King books, this is far and away my favorite. It has supernatural overtones but it’s actually a moving love story disguised as a tale of hauntings and old wrongs in need of being righted, and I was actually quite saddened when I reached its conclusion. It’s about a writer whose wife is killed in a car accident who returns to his childhood home in order to heal and get his life/career back on track. He soon meets a lovely young woman and her sweet little girl, and things start looking up for our hero until he discovers that the woman exists in a world of awful shit, and must endure for the sake of her kid. Surprisingly, one bright spot in the guy’s life is that the unseen spectre of his wife followed him to his retreat and communicates with him via a bunch of those alphabet fridge magnets; she still loves her husband, and approves of his potential involvement with a new love, but then things take a major turn for the worse… HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (1999)

I’d like to fill you in on this one, but I didn’t like it and have honestly forgotten what it was about. All I recall is that it’s a few short novellas or some shit… Feh, whatever.

So there's my two cents on the works in the Stephen King catalog that I've read. What do you have to say, dear reader?

15 comments:

Jewishwarriorprincess said...

Ok - I have to say that I too used to love Stephen King then his ego outweighed his ability to write and it all went to Hell. I also hated the Dark Tower series but I know people who think it is amazing. Never made it through the first one either. Over time I have come to the conclusion that he should have stopped with The Stand - the original version - and retired. Bag of Bones was a lucky fluke that should have ended 40 pages before it did. I have mistakenly picked up his latest novel called "The Cell" and frankly it is The Stand revisited in many ways and I am so bored with it I probably won't finish it. My two cents.

Jared said...

Another good later day King novel is "The Dark Half". It's from 1993. Thats about half a decade after I stopped reading King because he was churning out a lot of crap. I picked up and read "The Dark Half" on a whim back then and it was as good as his early 80's stuff.
Another observation: I just flipped by some bad King movie adaptation on TV and I realized one of the reasons the movies are so relentlessly crappy. King's books often juxtapose horror with the mundane. He takes ordinary people living their ordinary lives and slowly transforms those lives into horror filled tales of terror. Hollywood is generally not good at slow transformations or the mundane. As a matter of fact mundane is the direct opposite of what Hollywood tries for. So the movies always miss the mark.
Only "The Shining" gets the slow transformation thing right but misses the mark on the mundane. Instead they use "atmosphere". Unfortunately that "atmosphere" is the same creepiness that every horror movie tries for and it makes the lead character's transformation inevitable. I'm waiting for him to go crazy the whole movie rather than being horrified by watching him going crazy. Due to the mundane atmosphere of the book you never know what's going to happen but due to the creepy "horror movie" atmosphere of the movie you know he's going to be crazy at the end. It's telegraphed all through out.

Frankenstein said...

There's also the Bachman books, too...

Anonymous said...

Jim Browski says:

I just read "Cell" recently. The book was described as a zombie novel, a complete misnomer. It was competent but rather uninspired. There is more scary shit in a Harriet Carter catalog than in this book.

Jordan's Mom said...

Like you, I reached a point where I checked in irregularly with Mr. King's latest works. However, I gotta say that the first chapter of "Rose Madder" (not "Rose Red," the Shirley Jackson rip-off) was immediately engrossing and transporting. The rest of the book isn't bad and it's a quick read with a satisfying ending. Also, "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" was similarly engrossing and satisfying. Short and sweet, with a couple of Taser jolts thrown in to keep 'em interesting and King-ish.

The Professor said...

It's strange, and a little bit awful perhaps to say this, but once king got off the nose candy, his work began to take a decline. Like you, I think that "Pet Sematary" was perhaps his scariest piece of work (along with "Apt Pupil" which did it with nothing but pure psychology--the best way to do it!) and I understand your misgivings about "It" but it is still among my all-time favorites.

The Dark Tower was such a departure from what he normally did, a lot of people can't read it without going "Why the fuck is he writing this?" And I'd agree, I think he probably took the series too long ("The Drawing of the Three" is probably the one truly good book out of the series, with the best of the rest being only "pretty good"). I think he was playing around with some ideas stemming from hero quests, mythology, and maybe a little of the whole Jungian "collective unconscious" thing. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was just a little boring (it's been 15 years, since I read "The Wastelands" and now I "get" a lot of the symbolic and conceptual stuph behind it that I didn't back then--still doesn't mean I'd be all that entertained). He's dabbled in similar means with the books co-authored with Peter Straube (both sucky), and "The Eyes of the Dragon" (also very sucky)on the notion of "double worlds" or "twinners" as he and Straub called it.

By the early '90s, it was becoming painfully obvious that King was running out of ideas. Three books in a row about abused wives? (And only "Delores Claiborne" being really all that good)? The complete left turn of "Dreamcatcher" from a group of boys with a psychic bond into a load of SF alien invasion whooey?

Of all of them, only "Bag of Bones" captured some of the stuph that King was really good at, even though I found some of the conflict resolutions a bit ham-handed or trite or both.

And wasn't he supposed to retire after the redundant nature of "From a Buick 8?" (aka I'll cover some of the same ideas as "Christine" did).

Still, when his shit was working, it was often VERY good. I still think "Misery" is wonderful stuph, and "The Dead Zone" is one of the most heroic tragedies in modern lit I may have ever read. I tend to think "The Shining" is a little overrated, but still a very compelling novel. And while "The Stand" is ponderous as hell (and totally agree with you about the climactic resolution!), it's studded with chapters of very good effect, particularly in the "Outbreak" stages of the story.

At this point I think King should be focusing his energies in the capacity he started out as: a guy who's read and dealt with an enormous amount of horror and macabre literature and film, and usually is more than capable of expounding on that knowledge (he once taught "Dracula" as a high school english lit instructor before he "made it" as a writer, and dammit if the dude doesn't know all the insides and outs on the Vampire Tale). Stop writing novels now, and start getting into the meat and bone of the literary process on a non-fiction basis. His essays in this vein have always been good over the last twenty five years.

Anonymous said...

i love s. king, i have all the books you mentioned. the only one i haven't finished was hearts in atlantis and i started it about 6 months ago, bored the hell out of me.

Velma said...

Man, you have more guts that I do -- I could not reread Pet Sematary -- I barely made it through the first time, because it kept me up all night.

Mike said...

hey, i gotta say that one of kings best works is the long walk from the bachman books (which are all pretty decent when you get down to it). and i got to disagree with the professor about eyes of the dragon, mainly because i was probably 10 or 12 when i read it (if not a bit younger) and it had me from go, come on, political intrigue and flatulant royalty? what can be wrong with that. and i'm not just saying that cuz i went to high school with one of his kids.
-big mike

KA19 said...

I have to say something since no one else seems to notice. Everyone who is upset with King's later work usually feels this way because they want some of his truly horrifying tales. The problem is there are so many who will not read his work because he started off solely writing horror stories. If they would read some of his later work, his list of fans would have probably only shifted, instead of slowly dropping off.

Just something I feel more people need to realize.

Laser Rocket Arm said...

Late to the party, but I had to point out a small error about "Gerald's Game"--in the book the husband dies during sex, he doesn't leave the wife. Not that it really mattered because the book sucked, but just wanted to bring that to your attention. Having had a boyfriend who loved Stephen King I've read the vast majority of his books, most of which I wish I hadn't. The only King mainstays in my library are the Bachmann books and the expanded version of "The Stand," the latter of which entertained me at a time when my life was going to hell.

ILLUMINATI said...

I agree with you completely on Pet Sematary.To me,that and Misery are his best works. While Pet Sematary is the perfect horror story which played with emotions, Misery played with your mind.

Regarding Dark Half, the novel had potential and it was good in the first half. But, the endless soliloquies and the dragging plot made it dreary. There simply wasn't anything happening in the second half. It might have been a good novella, but that's it. The novel is not worth shit.

I found Shining good at the starting and liked it's plot, but to me it just missed the point and it felt bloated . King's greatest disadvantage is never knowing when to finish a book and go on rambling (Pet Sematary was an awesome exception) .

Never read The Stand and It. I'll be reading Salem's Lot shortly and look forward to it.

And one question for those who have read both the versions of The Stand.
Could you which is better? I got the original in a second hand book shop and I will be reading it soon. But all the rantings of his fans about the uncut being better is making me dubious.Thanks in advance guys.

Bunche said...

Illuminati-

I read the original version of THE STAND over thirty years ago, but I can tell you that the "director's cut" version is the better of the two. Loads more characterization and smaller incidents that only add to the epic's dire scope. To bad he didn't do anything about that ridiculous ending, though.

Anonymous said...

One question: I hope someone can answer this. In CUJO, did Cujo eat the rabbit? On page 19, it says, "but he [Cujo] could smell rabbit. Hot and tasty. Dinner is served" while on page 303, it says, "The rabbit was unable to get out and it starved to death in slow, soundless misery." I have a Signet 1982 copy.

Kevin said...

I remember reading the mass market paperback fo SALEMS LOT when it first came out. It was my first exposure to Stephen King and the font and back cover of the book gave no indication that it was even a vampire tale. I remember reading quite a bit of it and people asking me what it was about and I said, "I don't know whats going on in this town, but this book is great!" Then i backtracked to CARRIE and read ecah of his new books as they came out....through CUJO and thats when I just lost interest and never read him again. It's kinda odd to realize just how short my love of Stephen King really was! (Although DOLORES CLAIBORNE is one of my all-time favorite films and Kathy Bates is much better in it than in MISERY--but, oddly, I've never wanted to read it.) Thanks for the great write-ups on books. I somehow stumbled on your blog and can't stop reading (Modesty Blaise! the Falconhurst potboilers! A Feast Unknown!...). You;re very entertaining.