January 2004

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

The King

"Rob, top five musical crimes perpetuated by Stevie Wonder in the 80s and 90s... Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter-day sins? Is it better to burn out or fade away?" -- Barry, High Fidelity.

It happens in every field. Former geniuses, from Wonder to Lucas, suddenly lose it. It doesn't seem to impede their success, but all of a sudden, the magic seems to be gone.

But (as Barry asks), does that invalidate the earlier works? Do we throw out our early Stevie Wonder albums because of pap like "New Year's Day"? Is the first Star Wars any less magical now that we've seen Jar-Jar? Does half-assed crap like The Girl Who Loved of Tom Gordon make Carrie and Salem's Lot any less readable?

Yeah, I'm going there. I've avoided it for over six months, but you can't be a horror columnist and not address the most famous horror writer alive. This is my Stephen King column.

King's been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the controversy over awarding a major literary prize to *gasp* a genre writer (instead of a serious literary figure, like past winner Oprah). He also wrote another book or three, and started writing a monthly column for Entertainment Weekly with random rants on movies and books. When the man who is quite possibly the best-known (and best-selling) American writer starts writing what amounts to little more than an infrequently-updated blog, it's easy to take potshots at him (I'm up to about six in this column alone). But before we dismiss King faster than I got rid of my copy of From a Buick 8, let's consider what he's really done.

Until early 1987, King was nearly perfect as a horror novelist. His first five novels (not counting works written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman), Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, and The Dead Zone, still rank today as five of the best horror novels written. Each one takes a classic horror theme and nearly perfects it. The novels don't strive for literary perfection (Carrie and Salem's Lot, in particular, are almost too immersed in the genre to really bother much with deep character development), but they're damned good reads. They also quickly became bestsellers, and established King as a star.

Before King's first novel was published, horror was further off the map than almost any other genre. It's not that good stuff wasn't being published -- the '50s and '60s saw the prime work of Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson, as well as some great stuff from Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison -- but it was still consigned to the magazine and cheap paperback markets. King wasn't the first horror author to crack the bestseller lists; Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (made into an underrated film by future rapist Roman Polanski), and William Blatty's The Exorcist (made into an incomprehensibly overrated film by William Friedkin) were both huge commercial hits. But neither Levin nor Blatty managed to keep it up, with the former turning into little more than a hack, and the latter never recapturing the magic that made his novel so powerful.

(Quick aside -- King was not a fan of The Exorcist, calling it, in Danse Macabre, a representative of "the Humorless, Thudding Tract School of horror writing"; since this is the same man who also thought that Hearts in Atlantis was worthy of publication, we'll forgive him this lapse in judgment).

Once King's unfettered ascendance began, others followed. Dean Koontz rose from publishing pseudonymously-written hackwork to bestselling hardcovers, Anne Rice found success with her awful Lestat books, and Peter Straub's Ghost Story quickly placed him near the top of the pantheon. Other writers, like John Saul and Robert McCammon would soon follow, and the field still expanded. Authors like Jonathan Carroll, Clive Barker, and George R.R. Martin found that they could start within the genre and make the leap to other genres (or even into the literary mainstream, as Carroll has done).

King continued his streak well into the '80s, with hardcover releases consistently hitting the bestseller list, and sorties into new genres (like the high fantasy Eyes of the Dragon or the pulp throwback Cycle of the Werewolf) were just as successful (qualitatively as well as commercially) as his mainstream horror works. This peaked in 1987, when Misery, his first novel (not counting the Bachman-written Rage) not to feature any elements of the supernatural, was published. Arguably his most misogynist piece of work -- Susan Faludi cites it as one of the inspirations for Backlash -- it's also an amazingly brutal and powerful book. Watching Annie's insanity unfold (and Paul's trepidation) is an intense and frightening experience.

Alas, King seems to have jumped the shark (and the editor) immediately after, following up with The Tommyknockers, still the worst 800 pages he's ever published. A garbled mess of confusing characters and boring action, it's more enjoyable for the occasional in-joke (two characters drive through the town of Derry and catch a glimpse of It's Pennywise the Clown) than for any attempt at a coherent plot. This schlock was followed by the self-indulgent (but blessedly short) The Dark Half, in which he mirrors Misery's author who can't escape his fans with one who can't escape his own id. It's not a bad premise, but in light of King's own issues with his "Richard Bachman" identity, it's hard to not read it as a plaintive whine against a poor author being forced to write horror when he really wants to produce "literature."

The barrel kept rolling when King released The Stand: The Complete And Uncut Edition. The original version of The Stand, as I've already mentioned, was phenomenal. And it wasn't exactly a short novel as it stood. But King felt that his version had been unfairly cut by an editor, and wanted every last scene and character he'd lovingly constructed to be in the printed version. Having reached the level of clout at which no editor could refuse him, his work was published with over 300 additional pages. Although some of the changes (updating the cultural references) worked, the additional scenes and characters did nothing but bog down the already-long book (the "cut" version weighs in at 850 pages or so). Shock of all shocks, an editor might have been right!

King's scattershot approach continued during the '90s. He hit the bullseye a few times (notably in the gimmicky The Green Mile and the beautiful Bag of Bones, quite possibly his best work of the decade), and did a wonderful job with his ongoing labor of love, The Dark Tower series. He also published more drek than I've got space to gripe about in this column.

Which takes us back to the original question. Most of what King has written since editors lost control of him has been trash (bestselling trash, but trash nonetheless). In the meantime, there are publishers like Leisure and Pinnacle who are providing homes for new horror authors. There are publishers like Subterranean Press, Earthling Press, and Cemetery Dance putting out beautiful reprints and exclusive editions. Numerous anthologies have benefitted from King's name on the cover. There are folks like Joe Lansdale and Poppy Z. Brite getting published in hardcover. There are everyday folks who boot up a word processor and write a novel because they saw that an average guy like King could do it.

The horror industry is far from perfect, but given the less-than-ideal state of publishing as a whole, it's pretty solidly thriving. And a good chunk of credit for that has to be laid at King's doorstep. Unlike other authors who seem to been abandoned by their editors (Laurell K. Hamilton comes to mind), King has earned the right to write without restraint; without him, few other horror writers might be writing at all. As time goes by, his lesser works will easily be overlooked in favor of his phenomenal first fifteen years of writing.