Revisiting the King of ‘Bump, Eek, and Ook’ of the Night
By Miriam R. Kramer
From the Vault: I have read a number of Stephen King’s compulsively readable books since this column: Firestarter, The Dead Zone, The Shining, Rose Madder, The Eyes of the Dragon, Joyland, and The Outsider. They all touch on the wide-ranging variety of interests and subject matter I detailed below in my original column. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the most recent. The tale of Trisha, a young girl who gets lost in the woods off the Appalachian Trail, is an older publication but a compelling page turner. She keeps herself going by listening to Red Sox baseball games starring her favorite player, Tom Gordon, on her Walkman. In the process she forages for food and seeks shelter while sensing a lurking presence watching and following her. I look forward to King’s next publication, Fairy Tale, which comes out in early September.
Since officially beginning his career with a short story sold in 1967, the extraordinarily prolific author Stephen King has written more than 60 novels, not to mention multiple screenplays, five non-fiction books, and approximately 200 short stories. His first published book, Carrie, was released in 1973 when he was in his twenties, giving him enough money to write full-time. Since then, he’s left a legacy inextricably intertwined with pop culture in books and movies. His writing comprises horror, science fiction, fantasy, and straight fiction genres, with those genres often overlapping. He has referred to himself as the writer’s equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, which does not tell even part of the story of his enduring popularity, despite showing that he understands his common-man touch.
Even as an omnivorous reader, I put King aside for a long time. What I did read I found to be propulsive and very engaging, but I do not like horror as a genre, and perhaps unfairly stayed away. Also, I read The Shining when I was eleven, and stayed up all night long as a result. In my early teens Cujo had me closing my closet doors at night. Therefore, I moved on to other authors.
Yet even I dabbled my toes in the King paddling pool, if not the deep end, in my later teens. Written under his then-pseudonym, Richard Bachman, The Bachman Books, comprising four novellas, intrigued me in high school. They were not horror, albeit often horrific. Two tales stood out for me then. In Rage, a high-school student kills his teacher and holds the class hostage. As a high school student, I could understand and feel in my gut, as many teenagers might, the feelings of alienation in the main character. (After several school shooters were found to have referenced Rage or used it as inspiration, King let its copyright expire and wrote an essay on gun violence.) In The Long Walk, teenage boys submit their names in a lottery. A hundred names are drawn, and each contestant must keep walking to the death until only one is left, granted anything in life he desires from an authoritarian, right-wing government. I see echoes of it in The Hunger Games trilogy released by Suzanne Collins, although that is post-apocalyptic action-adventure.
Another tale that struck me forcefully in high school was Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the story of Andy Dufresne, an unjustly convicted man sent to Shawshank Prison in Maine. The Shawshank Redemption, one of the most highly respected and beloved films ever made, has maintained the highest overall rating on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) for many years, above even The Godfather and The Godfather II. It is a classic story of perseverance and redemption that anyone might find worthwhile.
I have had no way to even begin to review the stories, novellas, and novels that have shot from King’s imagination-fueled fingertips on to the typed page. In the past month, however, I did a deep dive into some of his recent and classic works, one that kept going as I grabbed a box of Chicken McNuggets here, a Big Mac there, or a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese, depending on my appetite. I read more of his books than ever before. I needed all that reading to escape during the month before the inauguration, taking a particular break from the outrageous events that took place on January 6 at the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. In the process, I took a drifting, scattershot approach.
One that often comes up on the “Ten Best Stephen King Books” lists is The Stand, a novel about a post-apocalyptic America in which most people have died from a government-engineered super flu. It drew my eye because we are still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. At approximately 1300 pages, it was a commitment, but one I was willing to make. I zoomed through it as fast as I could. This cinematic story features violence and cringe-worthy moments aplenty.
A King characteristic I noticed in this book first released in 1978 was to display violence with cartoonish glee and sometimes have characters emit sounds like “RAT-A-TAT!” or “POW!” to bring a slightly surreal edge to an already surreal story. His onomatopoeia is a touch gonzo, as his style of writing can often be. King released his own “Writer’s Cut” of the novel ten years later, since he had been asked to edit down the pages to keep the published book a reasonable price. By then it was a classic, but the longer 1988 version is now considered the standard.
In The Stand the few human survivors divide into camps of good and evil, separated by the Rocky Mountains, as they defend themselves on their long trek from other parts of the United States. The larger-than-life Satanic figure of Randall Flagg musters forces in the Western half of the former United States to attack forces east of the Rockies. If you’re looking for an absorbing, quick, escapist read, look no further. Is this the best Stephen King book written? Perhaps not for me, although I enjoyed it.
I read Dolores Claiborne some years ago. It is a gripping, straightforward fiction story about a woman, her deadbeat husband, and her trial for his murder. I would recommend it for its absorbing and satisfying examination of the relationship between mother and daughter, employer and employee, and abusive husband and wife. The film, starring Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and David Strathairn, is also well worth watching.
In this swoop through King’s oeuvre, I went through some of his most recent fiction. I perused the Bill Hodges trilogy, comprising Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch. He introduces a number of recurring characters, including Bill Hodges, a retired police detective brought back into action by a working-class serial killer, Brady Hartsfield; Holly Gibney, a neurotic, OCD, film-loving computer guru; and two middle-class African American teens, Jerome and Barbara Robinson. Together they make up a team that vehemently combats the real, gruesome, and increasingly paranormal serial killers they find along the way.
Holly Gibney, owner of the skip-tracing firm Finders Keepers, a de facto private investigator, appears in two more tales. Among the characters in my recent reads, she is one of the more fully realized and endearing. She appears also in the recent novel The Outsider. At the beginning of the Outsider, a man is arrested for murdering and sexually assaulting a boy. The police have found enough concrete forensic proof to convict him. Then they discover a perfect alibi corroborated by others, with the man even caught on camera at the time of the murder.
In reconciling the two, the element of the supernatural begins to creep in, making this a uniquely King type of mystery. Detective Ralph Andersen must find who is committing these murders and inducing suicides in roughly the same way as Brady Hartsfield, the murderer Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney had pitted themselves against earlier.
King’s most recent story collection, Let It Bleed, is a quick-reading collection of stories that features Holly Gibney in identifying another murderer with supernatural powers who feeds off violence and misery, along with other paranormally touched stories.
Perhaps my favorite recent Stephen King read is a fast-paced thriller, The Institute. A fired police detective, Tim Jamieson, hitches his way up the East Coast on a whim and decides to stop in the small town of Dupray, South Carolina, to become a night knocker, walking the street at night to check on its security. In another part of the country, a government agency kidnaps children with special telepathic or telekinetic abilities, killing their parents and bringing them to an institute in the Maine woods where the top-secret program can harness their paranormal powers for national security purposes. It remains for one very academically brilliant and socially skilled child, Luke Ellis, to make friends with the other kids, figure out how to escape the Institute, and make his way far enough away to gain allies, such as the former police detective in Dupray, as the chase after him ensues. I really enjoyed this book’s emphasis on kids: their resourcefulness and the way they form friendships. It is also a fast, fun read.
In taking this piecemeal tour of King’s writing, I notice his constant use of tangy, slangy phrases aimed at keeping his writing hyperbolic. That makes his books fun but often over-the-top. The attitudes of his characters towards each other sometimes do not show subtlety or nuance. Occasionally he can be ham-handed, although luckily never high-handed, and create dialogue that’s exaggeratedly creepy among characters who might not exist in real life.
Many would say, “Well, that’s the point.” I would rather have very convincing dialogue that makes it easier for me to suspend my disbelief for paranormal or horrific characters or plot points. For example, in the aforementioned Bill Hodges trilogy, there is some frankly clumsy dialogue written for Jerome Robinson, minstrel-style drivel meant to be done in fun but probably not something a young, intelligent, Black man would ever say to an older, white ex-cop whose lawn he mows.
King’s hyperdriven, cartoonish approach provides enjoyment, but it can make his writing erratic. Sometimes you can even see the welded seams of the machine, which creak when he emphasizes a minor plot point that you know will have to be crucial later. He also does not always keep in touch with the times. Kids in The Institute sometimes wisecrack like a Baby Boomer rather than a kid of today. Current-day characters have names that would have been more popular for people their ages in the Fifties, Sixties, or Seventies than now. King’s editors tread lightly. He writes fast, moves on, and does not apologize.
King sometimes touches on the provocative theme of literary obsession, with characters such as Annie Wilkes from Misery or Morris Bellamy from Finders Keepers valuing the books they love, the ones against which they define themselves, much more than the authors themselves. In that way he is writing a love letter to the power of literature and the mysteriousness of the creative imagination, albeit in some rather psychologically perverted settings.
Regardless of critiques, he grabs you with his propulsive plots and Everyman approach. He is bighearted, unsentimental, and never snobbish. Also, he shows a genuine sense of humor. You would want to know him as a person and probably as a friend.
King’s book On Writing, a nonfiction account of his time as a writer, is a wonderful book about the writing life and how best to tell a story, focusing on Stephen King’s personal story in particular. I read when it came out and then once more recently. If I had to pick one book of his above any other, this would be it. It recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary and has become a classic.
On Writing is equally fascinating for writers and non-writers alike who are interested in what makes this highly successful, down-to-earth writer tick. It is also very well-written, as one would hope, and more literary than any other book of his that I have read. Here he shows how much he cares about language, and here he explains why and how he approaches his craft. It provides a wonderful introduction to any subsequent King books but is equally as good for long-time fans who want to see how the gore-splattered sausage is made.