Wed
Nov 27 2013 12:00pm

The Great Stephen King Reread: Round-Up

The Great Stephen King Reread comes to a momentary conclusion. At this point, I’ve learned one thing: Stephen King writes. A lot. I’ve read 17 novels, 3 short story collections, and 2 collections of novellas totaling 10,658 pages written between 1974 and 1993. That puts me a little less than halfway through his bibliography, with 19 novels and 4 collections left to go, and that’s not even touching his eight-book Dark Tower series.

It’s an overwhelming amount of words and I wonder if I’ll learn anything new from the back half of his bibliography that I haven’t already learned from the front? Because, while the first 10 books of the re-read were interesting, these last 10 have been intense. Rarely does an author allow himself to fall apart in front of his readership like this.

Stephen King writes like addicts smoke, compulsively stringing words together every day no matter what. He’s also an actual addict, a big drinker whose increased income allowed him to add cocaine to his diet. By his own account, his office became the party room to end all party rooms, with only one guest, hunched over a word processor, writing. By the time King’s family wrestled him to sobriety in 1989, his writing was so tangled up in his addictions that he was terrified that he couldn’t write without them, that being sober would affect his books. And he was right.

This section of the reread starts in 1985 with Skeleton Crew, one of his most popular short story collections, and it ends in 1993 with Nightmares & Dreamscapes, one of his least. In between there were three surprises. The first was It, a great big slab of a book that towers over this decade of his career. It’s one of the first Stephen King novels I ever read as a kid, and re-reading it now, I was amazed at King’s commitment to following his story wherever it went. King writes fast, in a semi-dreaming state, and he talks about discovering his books as he writes them, learning what happens to the characters as he goes along. This has led to some dark places in books like Cujo and Pet Sematary that readers weren’t entirely happy to visit, and it’s exposed parts of King that he didn’t know he was exposing in books like The Shining.

With It, and later with one of the stories in Nightmares & Dreamscapes, the story takes a sexual turn that many readers are put off by, and some can’t get past. But re-reading It without prejudice, I realized that the sex scene in question wasn’t a mere lapse in good taste, or the revelation of some proclivity for kiddie sex on the part of the author, but the heart of the book. It’s the moment where the kids become adults, it’s the point where they start to forget their childhoods, it’s the overcoming of one character’s fears, and it’s the double meaning of the title. I expected that this would be a scene in the re-read that I passed over in silence, but instead I was left a little stunned not only by how important it was to the story, but by how completely I’d misunderstood it previously.

The second big surprise was The Tommyknockers. I’d read this one when it came out and I’d hated it. It’s still plenty hateable. Long-winded, out-of-control, undisciplined, it constantly veers into the ridiculous, and, not surprisingly, it’s the last book King wrote while stoned. But, reeling from a cycle of serial interventions followed by inevitable relapses, poleaxed by the cancer death of a good friend, King wrote what might be one of the most over-the-top, visionary hot messes in science fiction. A fever dream about a nation where everyone is irradiated, tumorous, addicted to cheap power, dying slow or dying fast, where technology is out of control and people are getting squirrely, holing up in their basements, obsessed with their secret collections, and their batteries, and their death rays, and their personal transformations, it’s a book that disappears so far over the horizon that it comes screaming all the way back around the planet and smacks you in the the head with the force of the true original. A book brave enough to be this bad and this good in equal measure is a book that shouldn’t be dismissed.

King got sober around The Dark Half and the third surprise is seeing his greatest fear come true: being sober hurts his writing. Starting with The Dark Half, his books lose the unhinged, maniac quality they had before. His writing gets clunky and awkward, his plotting gets haphazard. His confidence seems gone. The Dark Half is only half-bad, but Needful Things joins Christine at the bottom of my Stephen King barrel. Down there with them is Four Past Midnight, a book of four novellas by a man who sounds like he’s trying very hard to imitate Stephen King. If recovering from an addiction is like being reborn, then The Dark Half is half death of the old Stephen King, and half birth of the new, all mess and exhaustion with a few bright moments. Needful Things is the part of childhood where your kid is learning how to tell a joke and tells the same terrible joke over and over again, badly, until you could care less about her development and you care more about your own sanity. And Four Past Midnight is the awkward adolescence where you try to have as few pictures taken of your zitty, brace-face as possible.

But without that sobriety, it’s unlikely King would have had the nerve to pull off one of his most ambitious projects. Originally one book called In the Path of the Eclipse, it wound up as two books, Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne. It would have been more interesting as one book, but even so these are still breathtaking in their audacity. Both books are stories narrated by women, one a rich kept woman who was sexually abused as a child, the other a blue collar housekeeper who is in an abusive marriage. Both women are trapped, both women kill their husbands, and both women wrest control of their own stories from the men around them and retell them at great length. The length gets in the way, but it doesn’t entirely obscure the good stuff, and there’s plenty of it. Read back-to-back as reflections of each other, these two books may not have a lot to say about the state of women, but they do have a lot to say about bad marriages, sex, friendships that don’t look like friendships at all, growing old, being scared, and getting your act together to get the hell out of a bad situation.

So maybe that’s the fourth big surprise of this half of the re-read. Most best-selling authors follow a familiar pattern: get filthy rich, sell the same book over and over again. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Jackie Collins essentially write the same book, with minor variations, the only difference being the new ways they market their names. They’ve found something they can do, and they’ve found readers who want them to do it again and again. Stephen King seems to be possessed by something else entirely. He writes. A lot. And he follows his stories wherever they go. His fans love his horror, but then he gives them science fiction, childhood reminiscence, thrillers about S&M gone wrong, a long novel about a bad marriage. And they stay with him.

Stephen King is clearly in service to some greater compulsion. It doesn’t matter what his books are about, all that matters is that he keeps typing. Between It and The Tommyknockers, he wrote Misery, the Stephen King book for people like who don’t like Stephen King. In it, an author, Paul Sheldon, is trapped in the home of an insane woman who proclaims herself his biggest fan. She wants him to write a new book, and she keeps chopping off his body parts to get him to do it. Sheldon hates his books, but as he types for his life he falls in love with the story he’s telling. It’s a ridiculous story about Wasp Gods, and voodoo curses, and suspect trips to Africa, but it has a cheesy power all its own. It might be the closest Stephen King has come to describing how he writes. When you read one of his books you get the feeling that you’re not reading a book by a guy trying to make a buck, you get the feeling that you’re reading a book by someone who’s writing to stay alive.


Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.

24 comments
emeraldcite
1. emeraldcite
Some great reflections here, and I think you give some great perspective.

The only quibble I would have is with Christine. It's not Stephen King's best, but there is some really great writing in that book.
emeraldcite
2. jc1960
Why do you bother to cover SK? You rarely have anything good to say.
emeraldcite
3. Brian_E
Why did you bother to post that? You didn't have anything good to say.
emeraldcite
4. pjbwilson
As a kid I tried Cujo and couldn't get into it, though the begging did have some powerful and scary imagery. I have always meant to go back and try again, and this post whets my appetite to try again 30 years later.

Really enjoyed the post.
Chris Nelly
5. Aeryl
When you read one of his books you get the feeling that you’re not
reading a book by a guy trying to make a buck, you get the feeling that
you’re reading a book by someone who’s writing to stay alive.

That is an excellent summation of King, and that's why I keep coming back.
emeraldcite
6. RonRicoRum
I've really enjoyed this re-read, and this is probably my favorite post. For many years, I read everything that Stephen King wrote (a "constant reader", I suppose). I recently decided I'd moved on, since I haven't gotten much out of his more recent works. (The one that broke me was "Under the Dome"). This re-read has helped me realize that there was a lot of value in reading all those books over the years. We are the readers we are today because of all the books we have read in the past, whether we hold those books in the same esteem or not.

Thanks for your insightful posts. I hope there will be more!
emeraldcite
7. jc1960
@Brian touché. Happy Thanksgiving, folks.
Brandon Daggerhart
8. BDaggerhart
So, maybe I'm dense, but after reading both this and your actual review on The Dark Half, do you like it? I know there are issues, but it's one of my favorite of his books, and didn't get much of a clear indication from you. Just curious!
emeraldcite
9. Eugene R.
"Stephen King seems to be possessed by something else entirely."
Excellent summation, Mr. Hendrix! Algis Budrys, sf writer and reviewer, once noted that Mr. King is our equivalent of Charles Dickens, nearly literally so as the comment came up when Mr. King was publishing his serialized novel, The Green Mile. I think that the breadth of Mr. King's fiction and his willingness (compulsion?) to experiment with forms, genres, formats, and styles make the comparison to Dickens stand up well. Plus, it is a great line to with which to annoy anti-genre snobs.
Dave Thompson
10. DKT
God, I have so thoroughly enjoyed this reread, and I sincerely hope you're able to continue it. Even on the books I haven't read, I've enjoyed reading the thought-provoking critical reads, and I'd love to see it continue into the next phase of King's work.

Thanks for the rereads, Grady, and for not phoning them in, but putting all the hard work into it. It's been a real pleasure to read every week.
emeraldcite
11. lugucho
You know, there's a latin american writer, from Peru to be exact, named Santiago Roncagliolo, who published an articled stating that SK should get more recognizition than he currently does, and that he is a fantastic storyteller, more than some other writers who've won Nobel prizes. The article is here, but it is in spanish: http://elpais.com/elpais/2013/09/20/eps/1379678016_449757.html

In the article, Roncagliolo says King is at least as good as Lovecraft, and that people tend to ignore him just because he has tons of readers and tons of books.
If anyone wants a translation, I could try.
emeraldcite
12. Nate C
Never been much a fan of King, aside from some short stories and perhaps the first Dark Tower book.

Thanks for saving me so much time with this summation.

I do want to note here that when a writer puts down, "you could care less" rather than "you couldn't care less," I find it on par with using the wrong your/you're or there/their/they're.

You're clearly a pro. Fix that shit ;)
emeraldcite
14. andaco
Great post.
So you discovered King is actually a good writter, with some few mistakes.
And you had to read like 20 novels to realize that. Wow, I do not have the nerve to read so many SK novels. Well I've never read anything of him, and I don't want to read his entire bibliography, can you recommend me his 3 best novels so far? Please, GRADY HENDRIX.
Thanks a lot.
emeraldcite
15. garrek42
I beg to differ on one point. I think needful things is one of the more interesting stories King has written. That may stem from my first reading at around 14 as it is an emotional fondness, but it had it's moments of sheer terror and a villain whose power seemed so simple and so fun.
The characters get into so much trouble over such simple requests.

A previous poster asked for three books to be recommended, I will say The Stand (uncut)
Desperation
Firestarter

Those three are very different examples of his books and ones I've enjoyed a few times.
emeraldcite
16. Binary Worrier
Kings three best books, in my opinion, and in no partcilar order . . .
1. The girl who loved Tom Gordon
2. Wizard & Glass (from the Dark tower series)
3. Bag of Bones
Shelly wb
17. shellywb
Thanks Grady, for this series. Like DKT said, it's obvious how much effort you put into this series, and for me that made all the more worth reading. The earnest of your insights made me stop and consider each one and while I may not have agreed with all of them, they all made me think and consider his books in a new light, which is what a re-read is all about. I haven't read any of his newest books. I'd love to read what you have to say about any of them.
Jonas Schmiddunser
18. Jineapple
@Andaco:

Imho, it's difficult to name King's best books, because as the article explained very well, his style can vary a lot, even if you always recognize it's one of his books. I haven't read all of his books by far (I find they're always somewhat exhausting to read, and not all of them pay off) but I'll name my personal Top 3, all showing a different side of King

1.It (It's been a long while since I've read It, but it's still my favourite)
2.Gerald's Game
3.Running Man or The long walk (Either of them, the style is similar as far as I remember)
4.(Damn, I couldn't keep it to three books) The green mile

Obviously, Carrie, Shining and The Stand are also classics by him...I've only read the latter two, didn't like the Stand, Shining was decent but not one of his best books either, imho
emeraldcite
19. Sertaki
My humble opinion (no particular order):

1. It
2. The Stand (Uncut)
3. The Green Mile / The Shawnshank Redemtion (read both - since they are novellas I count them as one ;) )
Roger Leatherwood
20. rogerlb
Great summation so far. In a rather unexpected development now I want to revisit those old King books I read and many of the ones I simply ignored (likemany) as he failed to keep my attention year after year.

I first began to question my addiction to King around Pet Sematary and It, both going too long and a little bonkers. Never realized it was due to his addiction and that they have the madcap element his later stuff, as more measured as they are, never reach. Now I realize how pleasurable (and horrifyingly transgressive) that all was and will be re-reading PS and It (and Tommyknockers for the first time) with a new appreciation.

As a teen I loved his more traditional horror/early books and as a 20? I never really warmed to his later Dolores/Green Mile/ Dark Tower period. I think the '80s stuff is the missing link for me.

Best, Roger
emeraldcite
21. Ashcom
I didn't know about the addiction thing, but it makes sense. It was around that time that I stopped enjoying Stephen King's books. Up until then I voraciously read each new one as it came out. But The Tommyknockers was just bonkers, and the Dark Half was corny, and with each subsequent book I started looking forward to them less and less. The breaking point for me was actually Rose Madder, which was three quarters of a brilliant book. I was really thinking he was right back on top form, and then the last quarter just went off the rails and I was almost shouting at him, "No, I've invested in these characters, I wan them to have a proper ending and not this metaphysical horse-hooey!" I've only read his books sporadically since, and then never with much sense of enthusiasm.
emeraldcite
22. RickC1313
If I had to pick my favorite King stories, here they are;

The Stand
It
The Shining
Pet Sematary
Insomnia

I couldn't narrow it down to three.
emeraldcite
23. Nick Barrett
King is a shadow of his former writing self, his last twenty books (yes, that's twenty) have been at best average and at worst a real waste of a reader's time, and all of his later crop have had major weaknesses and ultimately were very disappointing; though some had flashes of brilliance - as King was a brilliant writer, so that's no surprise.

Was a brilliant writer.

I persevere as his style is now like an old pair of slippers but it's an ultimately frustrating exercise. He's still just as prolific but the mojo has long gone and it would be nice if he finally retired rather than producing dead-weight like Under the Dome, Dreamcatcher, From a Buick 8 (the list goes on).

Stevie come in your time is up.
emeraldcite
24. r-boz
Please continue the Re-Read! I've really enjoyed this series.

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