An Appreciation of Stephen King

January 14, 2009

Stephen King released “Just After Sunset” this past year, his latest collection of short stories. It’s a mature, literate work. King is a master of introducing characters so viable that you are able to care about them within a page or so in a short story, care enough to involve yourself in the dilemma that awaits them over the span of 10 to 30 pages. Much different from King’s first such collection, 1979s “Night Shift.” “Night Shift” was macabre, gory borderline shock horror. Here, the tension and terror is often more subdued or realistic. When supernatural territory is approached it’s not always in the horror sense, such as the ghosts that inhabit “Willa” and “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” Rather than a scary experience, although there are moments of terror (the psycho chase through “The Gingerbread Girl” or the OCD Lovecraftian monsters of “N.”

I took quite a few creative writing and literature classes in my early college years and I usually found that the professors of such courses typically viewed Mr. King with disdain. Some of this I attribute to personal jealousy, in that many of these professors were aspiring writers themselves. But I think a lot of it goes along with the idea most critics hold, be they informed, balanced reviewers or snobs, and that is that someone who sells so many books can’t be technically or artistically great. It’s the literary equivalent of a middle of the road multi-platinum crap band, like Creed or Nicleback. Sure they sell millions of records and concert tickets, but anyone with real taste or knowledge of music rarely thinks they’re a very talented, bold, artistic or serious band. It’s somewhat understandable, judging by other millions-selling authors—James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks, and other like minded novelists who sell boatloads of books featuring recycled characters, inane dialogue, bad prose and predictable plots. Such books are pop fiction that fail to resonate critically or artistically. But, simply because a novelist writes pop fiction or sells millions of books doesn’t automatically place them in the same category as the prior mentioned writers. The same goes for music or any other medium. The Beatles may be one of the few music groups that managed to simultaneously be the best at what they do and the most popular in their field, but later artists managed to balance popularity that resulted in sold out shows and platinum record sells with artistic credibility and critical approval: Springsteen, U2, Outkast. In literature, what was pop fiction in its day enjoyed by the general reading public was later considered classic literature: Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, “The Lord of the Flies,” etc.
Which brings me to Stephen King. He deserves to be considered one of the preeminent popular authors of the 20th century (and he’s still writing into the 21st!). He’s written an avalanche of novels, most of which have sold millions of copies as well as have received pages of praise from diverse publications. Just a list of solid, entertaining and well received novels he’s produced in his career are worth noting: Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Pet Sematary, Misery, Cujo, Hearts in Atlantis, The Tommyknockers.

Above and beyond those solid novels are the examples of books he’s released that have transcended genre and can hold their own in a list of best novels of the 20th century.
“The Stand” is King’s crowning achievement. The best apocalyptic multi-genre epic modern popular fiction has to offer. Large in scope, full of entertaining characters readers grow attached to and it stands up to multiple readings.
“IT” was rightfully called “The Moby Dick of horror novels.” For a novel that sticks to the horror genre very closely “IT’ still opens itself up to great characters and large scope. It’s the best and scariest strictly horror novel King has ever written, possibly one of the best horror novels of all time in its own right.

”The Dark Tower” series that has consumed King for most of his career is the best epic fantasy series since “Lord of the Rings.” Ranging from western to crime, horror to sci-fi, romance to comedy and breaching into meta-fiction by introducing King as a character himself in the later volumes, The Dark Tower series is a bold, creative and uncompromising work that is a joy to read. All seven volumes add up to make this a multiple thousand page adventure, and none of it is wasted. For die-hard fans, an added plus was always that many of the non-Dark Tower novels and short stories that King wrote during the years he was working on the series included references to and nods to the Dark Tower series. So that even one of the only novels that has ever really “flopped” as far as ambition and creative success for King, “Insomnia,” is much more appreciated when read by a Dark Tower fan.
In his later years, King has produced many books outside of the normal area he typically has covered. “Dolores Claiborne,” “Hearts in Atlantis,” “Lisey’s Story,” “Rose Madder,” and “Bag of Bones” all are emotionally deep novels that, although some do possess supernatural aspects, do not rely on the fantastic to resonate with meaning and capture attention. They are simply mature, developed novels.

In addition to novels and short stories, and screenplays, two notable nonfiction books have been written by King: “Danse Macabre,” a great nonfiction overview of the horror genre covering excellent books and films and personal anecdotes in their regards, was released fairly early in Kings career. “On Writing” is a terrific book that’s part autobiography and part guide for new fiction writers. Both are classic works in their respective focus.

All in all, I just realize that despite mainstream popularity and a fair amount of critical snobbery, Stephen King may very well be looked back on as a classic writer someday. As my home library grows in the size of nonfiction and reference works that I keep on hand I’ve begun to downsize much of my fiction. Typically I get most books from the library if I can find them there. If it’s a nonfiction book that I find will take me awhile to fully absorb or one I will need to re-read and reference in the future, I make a note to own a copy, but most fiction is unnecessary to own. I like nice editions of graphic novels, nice copies of classic novels and personal favorites, but most modern authors don’t produce novels I feel the urge to own nice copies of and return to for further readings in the future. There are a few exceptions: John Irving, Dennis Lehane, Sinclair Lewis, and especially Stephen King. I’ve read King since I was 13 years old, and it’s nice to revisit his books occasionally, and the more I downsize my fiction collection, I always find room for his work.


4 Responses to “An Appreciation of Stephen King”

  1. Derik said

    I am a big King fan too. Many judge him by the movies adapted on his books which are usually poor interpretations of his work. If folks would just read his works they would be surprised. King is the man who brought “The Green Mile” and “Cujo!” These two books are very different. He is the man who brought us the story turned into hit movie- “Stand by Me” and “Children of the Corn.” I love both of course! Sadly some see Children of the Corn’s 5000 sequels and think this King’s doing! Yikes!
    I challenge you mr. movie book lover. Do a top 5 Movies based on King’s works and a 5 worst. King has a new book out that reviews his own movies. Why not share your favorite adaptions and least favorite.
    Also why not do an article on movie, books, and CDs, that are hits but really really bite.

  2. dmhamby2 said

    Okay, Derik. As for the best King adaptations:

    1)The Shawshank Redemption – based on his novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the movie actually tops the story in some ways with great performances by the entire cast and an immensely re-watchable film.
    2)The Green Mile- another prison film based on King’s work, this one adapted from his multi part periodical novel and directed by the same man that gave us Shawshank. Tom Hanks as the prison guard and and equally strong ensemble cast, this is a miraculous and moving film.
    3)Apt Pupil- Brad Renfro (who tragically died last year, his death overshadowed by the equally tragic Heath Ledger death) was tremendous in this dark, disturbing yet artful portrayal of youth fascination with the dark side and past sings catching up with an old man.
    4)The Shining- King felt Stanley Kubrick’s version was a bit untrue to his work, so he later re-made it the way he envisioned it in a two part TV movie. I opt for the original Kubrick film–not exactly like the book, but an equally entertaining yet standalone work by one of the greatest directors ever starring one of the best actors ever (jack nicholson).
    5)Pet Sematary – though it misses some of the depth and mortality rumination of the deeply disturbing yet moving novel, “Pet Sematary” as a film is classic ’80s horror film. Gory, scary, over-the-top and highly effective.

    Honorable mentions: The Mist, The Stand (mini-series), It (2 part TV movie), Christine, Carrie (De Palma’s original), Misery, The Dead Zone (TV series, 1st two seasons), Stand By Me
    5 worst:
    1)Hearts in Atlantis- the movie took 1 part of a book that comprised 4 novellas to tell one interconnected tale and blanketed the novel’s title over the adaptation rather than the short story it was based on. Anthony Hopkins is usually great, but this tale makes no sense out of context of the novel and out of context of the Dark Tower mythology it nods to. It’s a waste of time, sad to say.
    2)Children of the Corn (parts 2-whatever and counting)– just stay out of the corn fields, its the same story every time. How a dozen plus films can be based on a 12 page story is beyond me.
    3)The Langoliers – the monsters at the end–were those pac men with teeth?
    4)The Lawnmower Man- supposedly based on the short story– immensely un-watchable.
    5)Creepshow 2 – not even sure this can be fairly tied to King. He wrote the comic book for the first film, the sequel I’m not so sure. The first film was fairly entertaining. The sequel was terrible.

    I’ll get to your other suggestion later. A lot of terrible movies, albums and books are very popular.

  3. Derik said

    I agree with your top five. I also believe the current comic book adaption of the Stand is another masterpiece. Haven’t read the DT comic adaption but am sure it is great. The sequels that say ‘based on a story by king’ are usually sad but out of his hands. Another classic comic by King is “Silver Bullet” and I enjoyed the movie. What did you think about the MIST???

  4. […] argued for King’s literary respect before; I’ve always felt that, despite his glowing popular reviews and massive sells (and […]

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