I’ve always had mixed feelings about Stephen King, and I realised that none of them are based on his actual written work.
On the one hand there’s the obvious quality of films like Misery, The Shining, Stand By Me, or The Shawshank Redemption – on the other, there’s dross of unfathomable quantity, including It, Secret Window, The Lawnmower Man, The Mangler, Maximum Overdrive and innumerable TV movies.
To compound things, when I first moved to London my housemates happened upon a Stephen King TV series, called Nightmares & Dreamscapes. The episode in question was called Crouch End, and it had us in stitches throughout.
If you’re not familiar with the leafy London area, Crouch End is a middle-class paradise, humbly boasting a lido, a Waitrose and more cupcake bakeries than frankly necessary.
So when an American businessman hails a black cab and asks to be taken to Crouch End, you can’t help falling about laughing when the pseudo-Jamaican cabbie refuses to take them – “It’s a place for strangers not to go,” he warns, with grammatical anarchy. (That’s the passive tense, King! Are you mad?!)
Here’s the clip in question:
It felt like King had picked a place in London at random that sounded spooky and thought: yeah, sod it, no one will know.
Of course, that was the hokey 2006 TV production of his short story, first published 26 years previously in 1980 in the paperback collection New Tales of the Cthulu Mythos.
So when I found an old, tattered copy of Skeleton Crew – a collection of King’s short stories – in a book exchange in Hanoi, I wanted King to be vindicated.
Of course, I didn’t know it was a collection of short stories at the time; they apparently aren’t great for book sales, because it’s not mentioned anywhere on the book’s cover.
Body of work
Before I begin, I ought to admit that my impression of King was also hopelessly skewed by a tiny Family Guy cutaway, lambasting King’s seemingly limitless prolificacy:
“For my 307th book, er… this couple is attacked by er… [looks around for inspiration] er… [sees the desk lamp] a lamp monster! Ooooooh!”
But in this collection of 22 tales, only three describe inanimate objects possessed by a nefarious spirit (‘The Monkey’, ‘The Reaper’s Image’ and ‘Uncle Otto’s Truck’). The others are actually incredibly varied, involving maddening space exploration; gangster weddings; castaway cannibalism; and callous campus killings.
The collection starts with the longest, The Mist, which was adapted for the screen in 2007. It’s a good read, though the film’s ending is arguably better – certainly more harrowing. Aside from that, and an extra-marital sexual encounter for the protagonist that was cut in the film, I felt like I was reading the early screenplay, so similar they were to each other (to the filmmaker’s credit).
But it’s a monster story, plain and simple. I like it, because the characters are rich and varied and speak to each other in disparate voices that impart both personality and agency. It’s polished, fun and gory in places. But it ends limply, and there’s no theme that might lash it to your brain for any length of time.
There’s only one other monster story – ‘The Raft’, in which an unexplained phenomenon stalks some kids stuck on a lake, mercilessly devouring them with soulless determination. It’s gory – probably the bloodiest short story I’ve ever read – and it’s wince inducing and scary.
In a word: it’s good!
It works because it has no explanation, so your brain subconsciously goes hunting for meaning, and emerges clutching the bloody remains of a lost-youth parable in its teeth.
Most of the stories are parables of some kind, often dealing with age or aging – ‘The Jaunt’ reveals the recklessness of childhood through sci-fi teleportation; ‘The Reach’ is about an old lady beckoned towards the light by her late husband; while ‘Mrs Todd’s Shortcut’ is about an anti-aging portal that the protagonist envies of its discoverer.
Write what you know
I was expecting every story to be about a writer, with writer’s block, going mad in a room and murdering his loved ones.
If a psychiatrist examined King based on his work – notably Stand By Me, The Shining, Misery, Secret Window, and any others in which the protagonist is a writer struggling with his craft – they’d find more examples here of a man who deems his work lowly and hates his wife. ‘Word Processor of the Gods’ has a writer coveting his brother’s family, while ‘The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet’ tells of a paranoid author who shoots his wife.
Similarly, suicide occurs in at least six of the 22 stories: ‘Nona’, ‘The Mist’, ‘The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands’, ‘Beach World’, ‘The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet’ and ‘The Reach’.
That psychologist has their work cut out.
Regardless of theme, King’s writing style becomes apparent early on. What struck me most was the peculiar similes his narrators use, usually with an adverb to highlight their inappropriateness. In ‘The Mist’ the character is beset with murderous spiders:
One of the spiders had come out from the mist behind us. It was the size of a big dog. It was black with yellow piping. Racing stripes, I thought crazily.
It’s fine; King likes to throw curveballs at the reader, with the assumption people think of crazy things even in distress. But sometimes the simile doesn’t belong in the voice of the narrator, like in his science fiction space exploration tale ‘Beach World’:
Their tentacles curled around the tread sprockets as they picked him up – he looked ridiculously like a faculty member about to be tossed in a blanket by a bunch of roughhousing fraternity boys.
Maybe in the far future, they’ll still have fraternity groups and raucous college campuses, but when a space creature is engulfing the crew of a ship on a foreign world, I feel like this college simile is just a bit lazy.
It made me think of my own story, based in another world. Yes, my readers are from my world, here, now, on Earth, so similes they can relate to are important. But my narrators – my characters – can’t make those associations, so they have to be omitted, plain and simple. It makes it very difficult to convey images, because you can’t take that shortcut of relation.
Break it up
There’s some typographical techniques used – not to Irvine Welsh extent, or like in the time-bending universe-folding episode in The Stars My Destination, but simple, slightly jarring paragraph breaks, with heavy-handed use of italics, CAPS, and – if it’s particularly shouty – ITALIC CAPS. This, for instance, is from ‘The Raft’:
…girls in bikinis on the beach, the beach, the beach, oh do you love oh do you love
the beach do you love
(love I love)
firm breasts fragrant with Coppertone oil, and if the bottom of the bikini was small enough you might see some
(hair her hair HER HAIR IS IN THE OH GOD IN THE WATER HER HAIR)
Speaking of The Stars My Destination, I thought King had ripped Alfred Bester off with his teleportation story ‘The Jaunt’. Turns out I was right:
They call it the Carune Process, but it’s really teleportation, and it was Carune himself who named it “the Jaunt.” He was a science-fiction reader, and there’s a story by a man named Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination it’s called, and this Bester fellow made up the word ‘jaunte’ for teleportation in it.
This happened a couple of times; my criticism was made for me by King himself. As I was reading ‘Word Processor of the Gods’ I thought This is just a magic lamp fable. Lo, King responded:
Was that what Jon had intended to give his uncle for his birthday? The space-age equivalent of a magic lamp or a wishing well?
All told, I liked this book. ‘The Jaunt’ is the most haunting, despite its flawed science, and the others are engaging to the last, though I was less than keen on the two ‘Milkman’ shorts. Meanwhile, ‘The Raft’ inspired me to write a similar short allegorical horror, full of gore and metaphor (metagore?), which I’ll post here when I get it finished.
Let me know if you’ve read any King, particularly the longer novels. Are they any good? Anything in particular worth a read?