This is the first in a series of articles I will do on Stephen King.
When I was in fifth grade, the teacher pulled me aside one day and said “Gabe, I notice you like to read a lot, and you like fantasy. I think you’d like this book.” She handed me Stephen King’s THE EYES OF THE DRAGON. Despite this actually being considered King’s most juvenile novel, it was a huge deal to me. I was putting aside my NARNIA and Roald Dahl books and reading a Big People’s Book! EYES OF THE DRAGON is a fairytale, though an intelligent one that pays tribute to other stories and is subversive of the genre. Think of it as a version of THE PRINCESS BRIDE that isn’t a comedy. I was amazed to be reading this book that had words like “his flaccid penis” in it, and other parts of the book were challenging to my ten year old self, but I stuck it out, and the result was very rewarding. To this day I have a soft spot for that book (which I am sad to say I lost after lending to a disgruntled ex-girlfriend), and it was how I discovered Stephen King.
My freshman year of high school was when I really got into King. I had seen Kubrick‘s film of THE SHINING and so devoured the book (only to be disappointed by how different it was). Next came THE DARK TOWER books as I had finished LORD OF THE RINGS in middle school and needed a new fantasy series. Only four books in the series existed at that time, but boy, did I connect with those fuckers! By now being a full-fledged Stephen King fan, of course I had to read THE STAND, often cited as his signature book and one that a lot of people, even non-King fans know. Then came MISERY and IT. And that was when the golden age ended. I’ve read many King novels since then, but to me the “core King” books are all the ones I just mentioned. Although I do feel King jumped the shark around 2004 or so, the guy’s always been in my life and never left my mind. As I said in my previous article, the first screenplay I ever wrote for a class was an adaptation of THE STAND.
[A few runners-up worth mentioning: HEARTS IN ATLANTIS is good. INSOMNIA is eh; I recommend just watching DONNIE DARKO if you want to see the same story done better. UNDER THE DOME was a let-down. ON WRITING is excellent, though a different type of book]
What is it about Stephen King that people love, and why is he still in the public consciousness after all this time? I guess you could argue King was like a George Lucas of the book world. He took many influences from HP Lovecraft to JRR Tolkein to old adventure dime-novels. He took the pulp paperback and legitimized it. He became a brand name with a built-in audience. Thanks to this superstar writer, we would one day have JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer (I’m tempted to include Neil Gaiman in that group, who has many stylistic similarities to King, but I think it’s fair to say Gaiman owes a lot of his success to writing in comics first). King’s kind of like Woody Allen: he produces so much content on a consistent annual basis that you know some of it must inevitably be good. Finally he’s just easily marketable as “the horror guy” even though a lot of his stuff is not horror at all.
King’s work may not be grand works of literature, but he does have a very clear love of Story and the art of Storytelling. He loves his characters, loves to make them funny and give them personality. Whereas George R. R. Martin characters all have fucked up names like Cersei and Tywin and Tyrion and Eddard and Hodor, King names his characters Eddie and Rich and Ben and Susan. And he loves plot points…big, juicy plot points that put people on the edge of their seats. His narrative is fun to read and he has a smart-ass tone. Basically, his stuff excites you as you read it. He also likes to use interconnected characters, or events from one book being referenced in another. This creates the impression that his entire body of work is one cohesive mythos (again, like Lovecraft). I find it common for people to say they’re “into Stephen King” the same way they would say they’re into STAR TREK or DOCTOR WHO. The guy is a franchise.
This is not to sell his actual talent short at all. A lot of his writing is excellent, with IT, MISERY, and THE EYES OF THE DRAGON being three of my favorite books of all time, and it amazes me to think he was writing these back to back in such a short span of time. I first read IT in high school and enjoyed it as just a fun horror story, but rereading it again over a decade later, I found it oddly profound with an epic sense of time and scope. Horror is a very unique genre to critique. Many horror stories are essentially pulp; they exist to scare the audience for a quick buck. Some take this further and are flat out exploitation stories. Yet horror can also be a vehicle to explore the darkest depths of the human condition, as is present in the work of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. IT walks a tightrope between these distinctions: it embraces shlock campfire stories and B-movie monsters, yet also shows very real human suffering in the form of raging violence, domestic abuse, sexual perversions, and cruel bigotry. IT may quite possibly be the darkest story I have ever known; not even THE EXORCIST takes its audience to such a dark part of the human psyche. Finishing the book, I felt as if I had, like the Losers themselves, emerged from an underworld of the perverse. And the book does it all by telling a nonlinear story about growing up and the power of memory. It contains elements similar to ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, BLUE VELVET, TWIN PEAKS, DONNIE DARKO, and King’s own THE BODY/STAND BY ME.
-Essay I wrote on Stephen King’s IT.
And because of this epic scope and grand insight of character, I feel that IT is to horror what LORD OF THE RINGS is to fantasy and DUNE is to science fiction.
On a final note, there have been so many film adaptations of King’s work that they’re almost their own franchise. I would say THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is definitely the best King movie ever made, with STAND BY ME a close second; however, THE GREEN MILE is the most faithful adaptation and the one that most captures the Stephen King feel. Unfortunately, King’s own forays into filmmaking have been quite shlocky or flat-out poor. King was involved in CREEPSHOW and directed MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, both super-campy B-movies where I felt he sold himself short. Then we have the Mick Garris directed stuff: THE STAND miniseries and THE SHINING remake. It’s not that these are bad (well, some parts of them truly are) but I find them disappointing for such a great writing talent. They suggest that King’s filmmaking aspirations are much lower than his literary ones. When it comes to writing, he’ll go all out and produce a great novel, but when it comes to movies, he’s satisfied with hokey second-rate filmmaking. I also feel Mick Garris is essentially his yes-man; he plays Rick McCallum to King’s George Lucas.
With all that said, King has always been part of my life, and I suspect he always will be. Yet with all I’ve talked about IT and EYES OF THE DRAGON, you must be wondering what I think of THE DARK TOWER SERIES, his supposed grand opus, especially once the later books were published. Tune in to the blog next week when I shall discuss exactly that…