Wednesday, September 22, 2004

King's Crown of Thorns

Clearly, with the release of the two final instalments of his Dark Tower series within four months, we are not getting enough of Stephen King. Because not only did The Guardian give him one of their lengthy profiles on Saturday, but so did The Times. Unusual. Not only that, but The Sunday Times reviewed the final Dark Tower novel (and pulls of the rather nifty trick of not really reviewing it at all).

Neither profile gives much info that hasn’t been covered a hundred times previously, and both, predictably, concentrate on the popularity versus literary quality debate. Heavy mention, particularly in The Times, goes to his being granted the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which prompted Howard Bloom to say the decision was:

another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve
described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls,” he said, “but
perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he
is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence,
paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”

As far as I’m concerned, King deserves every accolade he gets. Almost every article that talks about him manages to present him as rather bitter and resentful at a literary institution which ignores his contribution almost completely. Now, maybe reporters do exaggerate it and get a kick out of telling us how irked King is with this, but, for my money, he has a complete right to be. Because, whatever way you look at it, King is good. It always annoys me to see people criticising him as “low-brow” when many of his “allies” are literary academics. King is not low-brow, okay? Anyone who can tap into a nation’s fears so successfully deserves to be popular. As does someone who can speak to a section of the public no one has ever really addressed before. Because, whatever, King is popular because he speaks to America. And he does it in a way they can relate to and understand. He shares much with John Grisham, who is similarly underrated by the literary community.

Sure, he’s not a genius. But he’s a terrific writer. He is one of those authors, like Dean Koontz, who can be a tad patchy in between producing absolutely superb novels. For example, Bag of Bones is, in no uncertain terms, a masterpiece, by far and away his greatest novel. (King believes it’s his best, as well.) Sure, his style is sometimes a little samey, and once you’ve read ten you’ve probably read them all, which is why my favourites are mostly the later ones, and the really unique ones. His popularity has endured because he speaks to America with a particular voice, but over the years that voice hasn’t changed much. However, of late it has developed, and into something special. People say he’s no longer as good as the King who produced The Shining, etc, but this is not true. He might, yes, have lost his edge, but instead he has gained a kind of mature wisdom. Unfortunately, to gain that wisdom authors often do have to loose their edge. Instead his writing has developed; it’s gained the art of subtlety, of the undertone. From A Buick 8, in my opinion, is a far, far better novel than Christine ever was. Sure, they’re both about scary cars, but Buick 8 was far more rounded, more contemplative. More human. As I say, more wise. It was a lot more than just a horror novel. It was a rather touching book about the relationships between fathers and sons, and of the various bonds between police officers.

He’s also a terrific thriller writer, too. Again, much of his best works are more thrillers than horror novels, and some of the truly great books among his oeuvre lack any element of horror at all. Gerald’s Game, for example, is a simple but superb piece about a woman in a secluded woodland shack who finds herself handcuffed to the bed after her husband drops dead of a heart-attack. It’s such a believably bizarre yet simple human scenario, but King handled it so well that 300+ pages consisting simply of the terrified thoughts of a middle-aged woman imprisoned on a bed, and her attempts to escape, were absolutely riveting. Even something as mundane as trying to reach water on a shelf above her could extend for 20 pages without once becoming dull.
Gerald’s Game is one of his particular masterpieces of technique, and would-be writers would do well to read it. There’s not a vampire, telekinetic teenager, psychotic writer or horrible sewer-dwelling beast in sight, yet it’s a superlatively sucessful psychological thriller, and I would reccommend it as top of its game.

Other great King books? Many would name Misery, King’s famous “obsessed reader” novel, but actually its sister novel, The Dark Half, is the better book. While Misery is about the relationship between reader and writer,
The Dark Half is a novel about the relationship between the writer and the real person behind. Thad Beaumont buries his pseudonym, only for it to come back and bite him. Almost literally. Not only is it a better all-round piece of literature, it’s a cracking and creepy thriller. What else…Desperation, another of his later books, is dynamite, and so is Needful Things. No one does apocalyptic scenarios better than King, whether it’s on a world-wide scale (The Stand; which I admit to not actually having read – it’s far too long; I only just managed to get through It), or the smaller scale apocalypses of books like Needful Things, which have their base in psychological conflict in small communities which eventually implode. Few writers understand the psychology of communities as deeply as King. Then, of course, there’s his marvellous memoir-cum-writing-guide, On Writing. Oh yeah, and his "Once upon a time in a land called Delain" fantasy novel, The Eyes of the Dragon was damn charming as well.

Anyway, that’s quite enough of me going on about Stephen King. Anyone who has dismissed him in the past (and there are loads of you about) should try one of the above books, particularly Bag of Bones. You may find that you have to reassess an opinion or two. When I first gave in and tried him, I certainly had to. Because there’s far more to King than horror. He may have written mountains of novels, and not all are brilliant, but among them there are several real gems.