03 May, 2009

About Stephen King

May 3rd 2009

One of the most famous living writers, possibly the one who sold the most books too, Stephen King is this chapter’s topic. But before I go any further into the matter, you have to know I haven’t read a lot of King’s writings, although the portion I read of his works far exceeds what I read of H.P. Lovecraft, and I read every single story the latter ever wrote.

My very first experience of Stephen King’s writings was a French translation of Firestarter, and it took me about 10 pages before I dropped the book. I thought it was awful. I remember feeling like it read really badly, and that’s probably due to the translation, although the plot wasn’t too interesting to me either (for the little of it I had discovered of it). For many years, this was all I knew personally of King’s writings, and judging by the movies based on his books, and what everyone seemed to say about them, I felt the underlying scorn was justified.

How wrong I was.

One day not too long ago I decided to give this author a more serious try. I picked up a copy of Different Seasons – made of four novellas – and started reading “Apt Pupil”, mostly because it had to do with Nazism, and because I had vaguely seen the movies years before, and it didn’t seem like a bad story.

I got hooked pretty quickly and read the whole thing in a few sessions. I wasn’t sure it was mind-blowingly awesome, but I damn sure knew I wanted to finish it, and that, in my humble opinion, means the story is good at least on some levels. That was my real serious first experience of King in the original text, and I had enjoyed it.

So then I thought I’d read the other novellas in that book. Having seen the Shawshank Redemption movie already, I skipped it (I would read it later) and began “The Body”. This one too has been turned into a movie – in the 80’s – but I had strictly no idea that it had at the time I read it. “The Body” is the story that made me think King was in truth a great author. There is nothing supernatural in it, but I wouldn’t say there is no horror, as a cold hard look at life can be the most horrific vision, and thus realism can be horror too. The story is about a group of friends going on an expedition to see a corpse that hasn’t yet been discovered by the authorities. The whole narrative is told by one of these kids, who since then has become a successful and famous writer. To this day, it is my favourite King’s longer piece (though I haven’t read even a quarter of his work). It’s well-written, it’s immersing, the characters have... character, without becoming stock, the narrative moves back and forth between a long since dead past (childhood) and a nostalgic present, etc. I have nothing but good things to say about this particular story. It deals with life, death, childhood, the past, writing as a job, friendship, and other important themes. It’s a very impressive story, and I can only recommend it.

After this, I read the rest of the novellas in that thick book. Good stuff too.

Then I decided to actually buy a book myself. Since I’m a huge fan of short stories (Poe, Lovecraft, Hemingway, Hawthorne, Buzzati, to name a few) and since King is something like the literary son of Lovecraft and grandson of Poe (although varying in style, they occupy a similar spot in literature, or something), I thought I’d get a book of short stories by King. That’s how I got to Night Shift. The first collection of stories by King, to my knowledge; it contains some really good ones, and some not so good ones. If you’re familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s work, you’ll recognise the influence here and there, in some stories. That is not a bad thing at all, except when it feels like bad fanfiction, which I thought it did in “Jerusalem’s Lot”, not to be mistaken with the novel of almost the same name. I wrote an amazon review about this book, so I won’t rewrite it here, but I can’t not show you that King quote to be found in the foreword by the author:

"All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven."

My favourite story in this volume is without a doubt “The Last Rung on the Ladder”. I’d compare it to “The Body” in terms of goodness. That one, too, has no supernatural or strictly horror elements, but by God it’s a great story. To my knowledge, neither Stephen King nor J.D. Salinger appear in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, not even with a short story, and it’s a damned shame. King deserves to have at least a short in there, and I think “The Last Rung on the Ladder” is a likely candidate. I could write a whole chapter about the Norton Anthology and the general scholarly scorn of certain popular authors. I agree with King on the idea that skilled writing is nothing if the story is a bore. And now is the time when you decide whether I am a mere ignorant or an opinionated person with, perhaps, good taste. I enjoy King’s stories more than I enjoy Joyce’s. I read Dubliners, and I had to force myself to read for most of the book. I did like some of them, or parts of some of them, but on the whole, it’s not the sort of thing I’d want everyone in the world to read. It’s the sort of book that makes kids hate literature when they have to endure it as mandatory reading material for school. But enough on that issue.

After this volume, I saw that King had another collection of short stories, Skeleton Crew, and so I purchased that. At almost 800 pages, it’s one fat paperback. As of this writing, I read 440 pages. It contains “The Mist”, which has recently been turned into a movie (with a vastly different ending, from what I was told), and many others. My favourite so far is “The Jaunt”, one of the rare sci-fi stories written by King (I can only think of two, and that’s just me, I don’t know his entire body of works), and it reads like a Twilight Zone episode, which is probably no coincidence since, after inspection, that story was published in the Twilight Zone magazine. It basically deals with teleportation, and it will remind you of Portal, the Valve game that everyone thinks so much of (with reason, for all I know).

And that’s about it for my reading of King’s writings. As mentioned before, I haven’t read a whole lot, though it exceeds 1000 pages.

With this modest chapter, I wanted to say that one should not believe the general scorn towards King, because he is a good writer! Fair enough, I hear some books are really bad, and judging from the movies (which you shouldn’t do) it’s hard to be attracted to the books they’re based on (unless it’s the Shawshank Redemption). But yeah, King is worth at the very least a try. I have never read any of his novels so far, but you should try some of the short stories I recommended here; mostly “The Last Rung on the Ladder”, “The Jaunt”, and for a more classic King kind of story, “The Children of the Corn”, and for a longer piece, “The Body”, which is a classic to me now.