The Bestseller Factory: Stephen King
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
And now we come to the 800-pound gorilla of contemporary horror fiction, Stephen King (b. 1947). There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when King was held in such awe and reverence as a blockbuster—one whose mere citation on the cover of a book was sufficient to move it in large numbers—that few readers or critics paused to wonder whether his ability to sell books was in any way equivalent, or had any relevance, to enduring literary substance; but now that King is not quite the publishing titan he used to be—now regularly outsold, even within the horror realm, by Anne Rice and Dean R. Koontz, to say nothing of such bestsellers as James Patterson and John Grisham—there is perhaps room to wonder whether King is any different from Charlotte Mary Yonge, Robert W. Chambers, and other popular but largely forgotten writers of a prior day.
What is particularly remarkable about King is (a) his unrelenting prolificity (he has published one or more books nearly every year from 1974 to the present day), and (b) the extent to which nearly all of his novels, and many of his short stories and novellas, have been adapted to film, making him far more of a pop culture commodity than those writers who have to rely on the written word alone to convey their message. King has, in effect, become a brand name—the deliverer of a reliable product that, for the most part, remains within fairly fixed parameters and therefore delivers a predictable effect on his readers, in the same manner as McDonald’s or Budweiser.
King began his career in a relatively orthodox manner, publishing short stories largely in men’s magazines such as Cavalier, Penthouse, and Gallery; these stories were collected in Night Shift (1978). King has made no secret of the literary influences operating on his writing, and he has testified to his fondness for horror fiction in the informal treatise Danse Macabre (1981). It becomes evident that such writers of a prior generation as Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Matheson have exercised an enormous influence on him; but that influence is augmented and tempered by the perhaps greater influence of somewhat less exalted sources such as comic books, television, and B movies. We will find that there is very little originality in King’s supernatural conceptions, nearly all of which can be traced in one fashion or other to something he has read or seen in his youth.
Given that King’s earliest tales date to the late 1960s, it cannot be said that he was directly influenced by The Exorcist or The Other to try his hand at horror fiction; but his casual comment to Blatty—“You know, in a way, you’re my father” (Winter 39)—signals the degree to which the bestsellers of 1971 inspired him to seek a wider audience for his own horror writing. King has made it abundantly obvious that he is attemping to reach as broad a reading public as possible; indeed, one of the secrets of his “success” (if selling a lot of books is considered a success) is his ability to appeal to those readers who do not, as a rule, read horror fiction. It is, however, of interest—and indicative of the degree to which fiction and media have become intertwined—that King’s first novel, Carrie (1974), did not achieve bestseller status until the film version appeared the following year.
One of the obvious ways in which King has achieved his widespread appeal is by contemporaneity of setting and character; as he has remarked, “my idea of what a horror story should be [is that] the monster shouldn’t be in a graveyard in decadent old Europe, but in the house down the street” (Underwood-Miller 94). This methodology was, of course, already championed by Matheson, Bradbury, and other of King’s predecessors, but he has taken it to an embarrassing extreme, as in his much-ridiculed brand-name-dropping. King also developed a particularly simple, elementary, easy-to-read prose style that posed no difficulties to the impatient reader; and—at least in those works where he was able to restrain his inveterate penchant for logorrhea—he was able to generate a certain narrative drive that kept the reader turning those pages.
But King’s works of the 1970s and 1980s, which will be the focus here, are peculiarly beset with conceptual problems, especially in the critical issue of the function of the supernatural. Many of his early short stories use supernatural motifs of the utmost commonplaceness and lack of distinction: a haunted ironer in an industrial laundry (“The Mangler”); a giant Lovecraftian worm in a church (“Jerusalem’s Lot”); toy soldiers coming to life (“Battleground”). King is particularly weak on why the supernatural manifestations in his tales occur at all; he has absorbed so many comic books and B movies that he no longer feels the need to supply even a token rationale for the incursion of the bizarre.
This problem plagues his early novels. ’Salem’s Lot (1975)—no relation to the story “Jerusalem’s Lot”—asks us to believe that an entire town of vampires exists in a small Maine town. How do they all survive? What do they feed on? How does the outside world not know of their existence? And King’s resolution of the matter—the two chief vampires are dispatched by a stalwart band of citizens led by one Ben Mears, who along the way manages to have a love affair when time permits—is equally inept. In The Shining (1977), which some have regarded as the best of his early novels, King elaborates his widely used theme of the anomalous powers of the mind, first cited in Carrie: a boy, Danny Torrance, seems to be gifted with precognitive powers, but there are numerous paradoxes in King’s treatment of the theme. And the multifarious weird phenomena in the novel—an elevator that moves of its own accord; the ghost of an old woman that appears in the bathtub where she died; a bar whose patrons seem to materialise at random moments—are never harmonised into a unity.
Perhaps King’s most serious conceptual difficulty is found in The Dead Zone (1979), and it essentially cripples that novel. Here we are to believe that John Smith, as a result of a boyhood accident, has had a part of his brain damaged, with the result that whenever he touches a given individual, he can see that person’s future life. When he shakes the hand of a radical right-wing politician, Greg Stillson, Smith sees visions of Stillson becoming president and initiating a nuclear holocaust. With great effort, he undertakes to kill Stillson; but, while failing in this attempt, he manages to discredit Stillson so that he will never become president. But the book is one more victim of the determinism paradox. If Smith touched Stillson and saw him becoming president, no conceivable actions on his part would have prevented that result; or, rather, any actions that Smith (or anyone else) took would lead inevitably to that result. If Stillson (whether through Smith’s actions or not) was not going to become president, then Smith would never have had his vision in the first place. King is, in effect, trying to have his cake and eat it too: he wants to present readers with a terrifying prospect (a nuclear holocaust) but also to show his valiant characters performing heroic acts to negate the prospect.
Other novels are not much better. Firestarter (1980) is a mere replay of Carrie, but this time a little girl is endowed with what King calls “pyrokinesis” (a singularly unfortunate coinage, since what he means to convey—the ability to start fire from a distance, with her mind—would have to be expressed by the neologism “telepyrosis”), and much of the novel is merely an action-adventure story in which the girl and her father seek to escape the clutches of the government. Cujo (1982) is perhaps the nadir of King’s work: this mercifully short novel about a mad St. Bernard is nothing more than a melodrama about the townspeople whom the dog victimises. Christine (1983) begins promisingly as a touching paean to (male) adolescence and to a boy’s fascination with his first car; but the idea that a machine that was obviously manufactured in Detroit could somehow gain supernatural powers is more than a little ridiculous. As for Pet Sematary (1983), where the pets buried in a pet cemetery come to life because they were interred on ground sacred to Native Americans, it too is a failure—largely because of a maudlin sentimentality in the handling of personal relationships that besets much of King’s work.
And then there is It (1986), whose almost inconceivable length renders it the perfect soporific. Here the idea is that seven children who grew up in a small town in Maine come back as adults to battle a manitou or shapeshifter (a point we learn around page 700), which has the distinctive capacity of presenting itself in the form most terrifying to its observer. But the problem with a manitou—as Peter Straub discovered in Ghost Story (1979)—is that, by tradition, it is virtually eternal; but somehow our trusty band manage to dispatch it. This novel is so crippled by massive verbosity and inessential character description that it collapses of its own weight.
The same could be said of The Stand (1977), which King, at the height of his popularity, published in an unabridged edition (1990) that restored the 400 pages that were originally cut. King dryly remarks in the preface to the later edition that “After all, many critics … regarded it bloated and overlong to begin with” (x). Quite so. This book presents a naive good-vs.-evil struggle between another stalwart band of Americans, who gather in the middle of the nation after a “superflu” has killed off most of the populace, and another group of bad people led by one Randall Flagg (“the purest evil left in the world” ); but even this struggle fizzles out at the end, and Flagg is destroyed by the apparently accidental detonation of a nuclear warhead. Or was it accidental? King actually suggests that the hand of God (1084) was responsible for Flagg’s death. That’s all very nice—but where was God when the superflu was ravaging the country? King had actually treated this kind of apocalyptic theme in the early story “Night Surf” (1974), a compact and pungent narrative that is infinitely superior to its flabby successor.
I do not wish to suggest that King is a total failure on purely aesthetic grounds. He has had some modest successes both in the short story and in the novel. As a mainstream writer—or, at any rate, as a non-horror writer—King has proven on occasion to be surprisingly effective. The best story in Night Shift is “The Woman in the Room” (1978), a lightly fictionalised account of the death of King’s mother from cancer. And the early novels that King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman are also competent. Rage (1977), about a boy who holds his high school class hostage, and The Long Walk (1979), a science fiction tale where teenage boys are forced to undertake a 100-mile walk without stopping, are highly effective in short compass; but they are surpassed by The Running Man (1982), a gripping short novel about a television show in which a man must survive undetected for a month to claim an enormous reward. It is true that the novel bears striking similarities to Robert Sheckley’s story “The Prize of Peril” (1958), but the vivid evocation of a futuristic world where the gap between rich and poor has become cavernous appears to be King’s own. It may well be King’s best novel.
Other mainstream works by King—especially some of the novellas in Different Seasons (1982)—deserve some attention. One that doesn’t is the long-winded “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” about a man who, having been falsely convicted for murder, spends decades digging a tunnel out of his cell. The lame “moral” we are to take from this story—“Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies” (100)—does not justify a tale as long as Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. But “Apt Pupil” and “The Body” (the basis of the film Stand by Me) are more creditable, although both are severely flawed. The former tells of the bizarre symbiotic relationship between a teenage boy, Todd Bowden, and a former Nazi concentration camp commandant, Kurt Dussander. The perverse relationship—where Todd solicits increasingly horrifying details of the events at the camp from Dussander, making the former just as loathsome as the former—is effectively portrayed, but the tale is spoiled when both individuals begin killing derelicts in the town: Todd’s motivations are clear (he now wishes to kill Dussander but is afraid to do so, so he turns his aggressions elsewhere), but Dussander’s are entirely inexplicable. “The Body,” although containing some of King’s freshest and most vibrant writing and imagery, is marred by a serious error in overall conception. What could have been a delicate and moving tale of teenage boys undergoing a rite of passage when they find the body of a boy who died mysteriously becomes instead a pretentious account of the evolution of one of the boys, Gordon Lachance, into a writer—and Lachance, it becomes obvious, is another in a long line of stand-ins for King himself, so that the tale really becomes a story about its author.
Still more respectable are three later novels of this period, Misery (1987), Gerald’s Game (1992), and Dolores Claiborne (1993). The first tells the well-known story of a romance writer, Paul Sheldon, who is kidnapped by a crazed fan, Annie Wilkes, who then forces Sheldon to write another novel in a romance series that he wishes to end. While an effective conte cruel, the novel suffers from the obvious self-pity in which King indulges: Sheldon is also a King stand-in—or, perhaps more accurately, a wish-fulfilment fantasy. For Sheldon “wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers” (6), and he is distressed that Wilkes (a stand-in for King’s own many readers) insists that he continue his “whoredom” (66) to write romance blockbusters instead of books that, in his opinion, have a chance to win the National Book Award!
Gerald’s Game is another conte cruel, but it is handled in a much superior fashion. This gripping account of a woman whose husband suffers a heart attack during a sex game—she is handcuffed to the bed in a remote cabin in Maine—and her attempts to extricate herself out of her situation becomes both a chilling suspense tale (in one impressive set-piece, King spends ten pages in an agonising portrayal of the woman’s attempts to reach a glass of water) and a moving analysis of her guilt at partly causing her husband’s death and of her reflections on the course of her entire life. Dolores Claiborne is somewhat less notable: the entire novel is a long monologue by the protagonist, Dolores Claiborne St. George, who seeks to clear herself from accusations that she murdered a wealthy woman who had left her a large sum of money, but who confesses to the decades-old murder of her husband, who had begun to molest their daughter. The novel is a convincing portrayal of lower-class life, perfectly mirrored in the ignorant, coarse, and filthy monologue of Dolores; and yet, King extends sympathy to her, and only a contrived happy ending spoils the overall effect.
Two later supernatural novels are worth some attention. The Dark Half (1989) is, in effect, a fictionalised account of the manner in which the Richard Bachman pseudonym was revealed. Here a pseudonym, George Stark, of the author Thad Beaumont actually comes to life: this premise, while entirely preposterous and never adequately explained, still leads to interesting effects, since Stark viciously kills everyone involved with the revelation of the pseudonym, but then finds that he is “losing cohesion” (266) because Beaumont is no longer using the pseudonym. Finally, there is Needful Things (1991), in which King seeks to put an end to his fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine. A man named Leland Gaunt opens a shop called Needful Things, in which he sells various rare commodities to the townspeople and asks in return only that they play increasingly nasty tricks on one another. The premise is probably adapted from Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but King’s treatment, if inevitably prolix, is deft. Gaunt is ultimately revealed to be a demon, but his role is merely to incite the townspeople to commit acts that they might have been inclined to commit in any case; as such, the novel is a clever fusion of supernatural and psychological horror.
King, of course, resolutely continued writing even when the horror “boom” was over in the early 1990s; but, as I have stated, his subsequent work did not quite captivate readers as his earlier work did. My analysis has also passed over in merciful silence some truly dreadful works—the last Bachman book, Thinner (1985); the ludicrous science fiction/horror hybrid The Tommyknockers (1987); the novellas in Four Past Midnight (1990), the last two of which are so crippled by prolixity as to be virtually unreadable. As for the multivolume series The Dark Tower (1982f.), some readers and critics profess to find deep meaning in this bizarre fantasy/horror/western hybrid; but if so, I shall leave it to them.
There are, indeed, serious doubts as to the overall aesthetic or philosophical thrust of King’s work. What he is trying to say? Is he, in fact, trying to say anything? For a time some of his enthusiastic defenders maintained that his work was full of profound statements about life and society, but the evidence for such claims seems to me slim to non-existent. The best that can be said about him is that on a few occasions he exhibits a notable sensitivity to the mentality and emotions of (male) adolescence and on even rarer occasions is able to convey it effectively; and some of the later novels of this period that I have discussed—novels that, tellingly, were largely scorned by his own devotees—do at times reveal a more serious attitude toward human relationships. But overall, King is just a schlockmeister—the literary equivalent of all the B movies and comic books he digested in his youth and continues to regurgitate to this day. For all the awards he has received over the years (including, grotesquely, a National Book Award for “distinguished contribution to American letters”), there is every reason to believe that the great proportion of his work will, as with so many of the bestsellers of prior ages, lapse into oblivion with the passage of time.