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.