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What Stephen King Isn't
October 12, 2013 7:23 AM   Subscribe

Thoughts on what makes him a damn fine and fun read.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (49 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Margaret Atwood on Doctor Sleep and Stephen King's Horror - despite all her backflips on certain other genres I think she nails it here.
posted by Artw at 7:34 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can I recommend Stephen King's "On Writing" book in here?

Because it really is a super readable, educational and intriguing book.
posted by DigDoug at 7:43 AM on October 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


I tend to like King's books that introduce a whole slew of characters that only have a tiny bit to do with the plot. Tommyknockers is one of my favorites for this very reason, as is Needful Things, which has a stupid plot, really, but the town is so fascinating.

His more plot-important books tend to leave me cold.
posted by xingcat at 7:45 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd kind of disagree with the premise that Kings cross-genre leanings are unique to him, or the defining factor of all his best work, but they do help make him fun. Certainly despite being deeply rooted in the Horror genre he's git no problem with writing whatever the hell he likes and pulling from wherever he likes in order to do it.
posted by Artw at 7:47 AM on October 12, 2013


I was actually kind of disappointed by Doctor Sleep (to remain spoiler-free, I'll just say that I felt like the second half didn't really live up to the promise of the first half), but I love Stephen King. It always baffles me when people tell me things like, "Oh, I don't read him, I don't read gore/horror/scary things" when there's so much more than that going on in even the scariest of his books.
posted by skycrashesdown at 7:47 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


His more plot-important books tend to leave me cold.

Me, I'm all about the short stories - they're simple, direct and don't have room to over complicate themselves or grow meandering plotwise.
posted by Artw at 7:48 AM on October 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


I often wonder how much of the repetition of themes and motifs in American Horror narratives is from everyone drawing on the same sources or something more indicative to the national character - all those isolated towns and secret satanists and dark, dark woods.
posted by The Whelk at 7:49 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


His more plot-important books tend to leave me cold.

I like the character development of his writing. As soon as it descends into the overly supernatural I lose interest. It was a fine example of that. The first half of that book was one of the scarier, finer reads I've experienced. The second half was a throwaway.
posted by jimmythefish at 7:58 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I remember reading Needful Things in one very long day as a teenager. Fun and creepy book. Much of King's work is a kind of outgrowth of the fairy tale, complete with moral.
posted by shivohum at 8:05 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


The shorter version of this is that King isn't a literary snob of any sort; he'll grab anything from anywhere and throw it into the pot just to see what it'll taste like. This is what makes him so accessible: No matter what he's doing there's some part of it you can relate to, and no matter what it's usually clear King is having fun. When you're aiming for entertainment (and King always is), that matters.
posted by jscalzi at 8:06 AM on October 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


Me, I'm all about the short stories

Yeah, he's a master. The Long Walk was a little long for a short story but just an absolutely gripping, horrific read.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:09 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I love this game.

WHAT STEPHEN KING ISN'T: a brown bear, the starting lineup of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers, a cut on the roof of the mouth of humanity, an accordion cursed with consciousness and self-awareness, a jar of marmalade (either full or empty), and a guide to facial hair of U.S. Civil War generals.

What else is Stephen King not? The floor is open.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 8:10 AM on October 12, 2013 [30 favorites]


Like DigDoug, I also enjoyed "On Writing", and will re-read it one of these days.

"Dr. Sleep", like most King novels, has forgettable sections which I skimmed, but the "good parts" are just so satisfying and well-written... I'm reminded of another long-winded novelist, Charles Dickens. Both writers could have used a ruthless editor.
posted by Agave at 8:10 AM on October 12, 2013


WHAT STEPHEN KING ISN'T:

Can you prove any of these assertions?
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:13 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


For my money, King is one of the more effortlessly conversational and immediately engaging writers in American fiction. Even when he's writing something lousy, he manages to tell it like he's the interesting guy next to me at the bar on a slow night with nothing to do but talk.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:15 AM on October 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


I generally agree that King is underrated, but two things prevent me from enjoying his books: the pooping and the animal cruelty. Once the cocker spaniel showed up in It, I threw my copy of the book against the wall so hard it left a mark. Yes, it was a fictional dog, but that just crossed a line for me.
posted by pxe2000 at 8:15 AM on October 12, 2013


I'm reminded of another long-winded novelist, Charles Dickens. Both writers could have used a ruthless editor.

Dickens was paid by the word and writing episide-by-episode to a deadline- these days King doesn't really have either excuse.
posted by Artw at 8:18 AM on October 12, 2013


I found his pretensions irritating and didn't read anything of his for a couple of decades, and then decided to put aside my bias and try 11/22/63. I found it unreadable. His writing is not for me. I felt like the characters were stock cardboard cutouts, that he gave faaarrrrrrrr too much irrelevant detail to have the consolation of being plot driven and that this mass of detail was trite, boring, and derivative. I was willing for his writing to be a guilty pleasure but I found no pleasure in it.
posted by janey47 at 8:18 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


For those that liked On Writing I'd recommend Danse Macabre, his history/analysis of horror fiction across mediums.
posted by Artw at 8:23 AM on October 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Dickens was paid by the word and writing episide-by-episode to a deadline

First part, false; second part, true. [end Victorianist derail]


Although I find very longform King to be pretty tedious, for the reasons that janey47 mentions, the short stories are extremely effective chillers--I recently read "The Road Virus Goes North" and was happy to be in a well-lighted environment at the time--and I have no problem at all believing that those, at least, will still be read in a century, in the way that we still read J. S. LeFanu or M. R. James.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:36 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am with you guys -- I enjoy his books, but he so often loses me when things get cartoony toward the end. A good example is Pet Sematary (spoilers): first half, with the old man's story of his dog coming back subtly wrong, and the hypnotically chilling journey to the burial grounds, and the cat coming back vaguely evil -- loved it. Second half with maniac scalpel-wielding toddler -- eye roll.

However, reading On Writing in college was transformative for me. I was a writing major, but nobobdy taught us about the publication process, or streamlined what should have been creative writing 101 (use fewer adverbs! avoid overusing forms of "to be", etc.). On Writing lays it all out there in an incredibly engaging way, and I credit it with helping speed up my journey to publication in my mid-twenties. In fact, this thread has reminded me to mail a copy to an aspiring writer friend.
posted by changeling at 8:38 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Full Dark, No Stars is an excellent argument for the novela or novellete being his perfect length.
posted by Artw at 8:38 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Liked this article but disagree utterly with the premise that King is most notable for his manic inventiveness. What makes Stephen King Stephen King is that he can actually write. Any schmuck can invent. Only a few can make those inventions sing on the page.

The shorter version of this is that King isn't a literary snob of any sort...When you're aiming for entertainment (and King always is), that matters.

Can't go with jscalzi here either. I think King is an utter literary snob; he cares deeply about the difference between good writing and bad, so much so that he wrote a whole book about technique. I don't think he'd say Fifty Shades of Gray is as good as his own stuff, even though, empirically speaking, it entertained millions and millions of people a hell of a lot. I think he'd say it was crap.

But that's based on what kind of writer he is, and what I've heard him say in interviews about writing, so I'm willing to be corrected on this if I'm wrong about his views.
posted by escabeche at 8:51 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


And Artw is right: Full Dark, No Stars is astonishingly good; I say astonishing because his novels, at this point, are baggy messes -- I still read each new one and enjoy it, but in the same way I bought each R.E.M. album after Out of Time -- it's not as good anymore, but there's that plain pleasure of hearing that familiar voice again. But the stuff in Full Dark, No Stars is as good as anything he's ever written.
posted by escabeche at 8:53 AM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Can't go with jscalzi here either. I think King is an utter literary snob; he cares deeply about the difference between good writing and bad, so much so that he wrote a whole book about technique.

I don't think seeing the bad in things is what makes people snobs, rather having invented reasons not to see the good in things.
posted by Artw at 8:54 AM on October 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


One summer, when I was nine or ten, I inherited a few thousand science-fiction and horror paperbacks from a friend of my mother’s.

THIS IS MY JEALOUS FACE.
posted by Mezentian at 8:55 AM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, wait? How is Dune a " slim ... paperback"? Was it ever "slim"?
Also, I need to buy Dr Sleep stat.

Oddly, I was reminded if The Shining today while getting rid of a wasp nest.
posted by Mezentian at 8:58 AM on October 12, 2013


Yeah, Artw is right, he's likely not a snob in the "certain categories of books are beneath my notice" sense, but I think he is one in the "being entertaining in some way is necessary but not sufficient to make a book worthwhile" sense.
posted by escabeche at 9:09 AM on October 12, 2013


Once the cocker spaniel showed up in It, I threw my copy of the book against the wall so hard it left a mark. Yes, it was a fictional dog, but that just crossed a line for me.

You missed the pre-teen gang bang?
(For some reason I love typing that phrase. It's almost like teen me still can't believe that happened).

the pooping

Everyone has a Dreamcatchers in them.

(Also, what people have said: Full Dark, No Stars and Danse Macabre are amazingly good.)
posted by Mezentian at 9:32 AM on October 12, 2013


There are King books I like and King books I haven't enjoyed over the years, but I give the man a ton of credit for always being willing to try new things. He started in pretty straightforward horror (although even there he was different - haunted hotels and marriages, possessed cars, a town of vampires instead of a vampire in the town), and has moved on to do more psychological horror, straight up drama, science fiction, fantasy, and whatever else. He has never really let his "genre" define him.

That being said, as others have noted here - it's his short fiction that is his best. Short stories and novella length works (his best work in the past ten years, IMO, is Full Dark, No Stars). When he writes short, his shit is tight. And when it's tight, his shit is right.
posted by nubs at 9:34 AM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is not the first Stephen King thread on MF in which multiple commenters have suggested (I think correctly) that King is better at setting up a narrative in his longer work than resolving it. This is true of Doctor Sleep as well as a lot of his older stuff. But the first half of his books are typically so damn gripping that I will cut him a lot of slack on his second half.

And I think that his story "Fair Extension", in FULL DARK NO STARS, is simply one of the best American short stories that ever was or ever will be written.
posted by Mr. Justice at 9:38 AM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


They don't need to be short stories but he has got to stop with the fucking yarns. Doctor Sleep and Joyland play out over like 20 years or at least seem to. They are gauzy at best. His most memorable books play out over a season.

Also stop with the reminiscence by an old man stuff. Half his narrators are just rambling about a ghost they saw back in 19 dickety 2. Please, just write one story that isn't waterlogged with nostalgia for the days when you could get a coke at the drugstore for a nickel and then see a matinee with your best girl before observing a life changing supernatural event.

I read Doctor Sleep last week and forgot it even exists. Yeah his more recent books are better than staring at the wall but they have zero impact. Best I could say about Doctor Sleep, Joyland, and Black House was they passed the time.

In short, fuck that guy.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:56 AM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'll jump on the Full Dark No Stars bandwagon... Having given up king after college for many of the reasons stated here, I saw that he had written new novellas and went for it... Amazing. On Writing is an essential read for anyone interested in writing, too.
posted by Huck500 at 11:04 AM on October 12, 2013


That Dickens being paid by the word thing is not exactly true.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:51 AM on October 12, 2013


I really loved The Stand. Dead Zone was pretty good. I can't read most of his work, especially when it involves harm to children, because I'm a wuss. I wish he'd let someone scan his brain as he writes; he is astonishingly prolific.
posted by theora55 at 11:52 AM on October 12, 2013


In my third year at uni, I wrote an essay for my second major, Religious Studies, where I used King's work as an example for comparison (I cannot for the life of me now recall for WHAT). Essay came back with a B+ and a note from the lecturer saying that King wasn't a suitable example to use, not "knowledgeable" enough.

Well. My first major was English Lit. I took her to task and made a suitable argument that King's work, and in fact King, knew enough, and that it was evident in how the public responded to his work the same way mass groups of people apply themselves to religious movements. Or some such. It's been a while.

Essay got remarked. Came back with an A.

Though I personally prefer King's earlier work (and I have issues with him as a writer, too), I think many people outright dismiss him simply because of the success he has had. But there are things in his writing that clearly resonate deeply with the massive amounts of people who read that work. That alone is enough of a reason to not dismiss him as not having"talent" or being a good writer. He connects to people. It's what writing is supposed to do.
posted by New England Cultist at 12:07 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Please, just write one story that isn't waterlogged with nostalgia for the days when you could get a coke at the drugstore for a nickel and then see a matinee with your best girl before observing a life changing supernatural event.

I swear, I read that three times, and each time it was ""...then see a manatee with your best girl..." I would so love for King to write that story. Especially if it was set in New England.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:17 PM on October 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I swear, I read that three times, and each time it was ""...then see a manatee with your best girl..." I would so love for King to write that story. Especially if it was set in New England.

Yeah, I'd kindle that. I'd probably prefer manatees in Mid-World. Maybe one of the guardians of the beam is a manatee.

Damnit, Stephen King, I can't stay mad at you.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:30 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


It always baffles me when people tell me things like, "Oh, I don't read him, I don't read gore/horror/scary things" when there's so much more than that going on in even the scariest of his books.

If you don't like scary or dread-inducing stories, no matter how much Stephen King is a good writer, you're not going to like his books. Of course there's other stuff going on, but it's surrounded by scary stuff.

I think he's an amazing writer, but it doesn't make him a good writer for every reader.
posted by jeather at 12:54 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I had completely blocked the preteen gang-bang from It out of my memory.
posted by pxe2000 at 2:09 PM on October 12, 2013


Never got why King is rated. I used to assume it was irony. I was fairly shocked to discover it wasn't. Guy always reads like a superannuated male adolescent indulging in morbid male adolescent fantasies, to me.
posted by Decani at 2:19 PM on October 12, 2013


There's an anecdote about an American at a performance of Mahler symphony, becoming restless and eventually complaining about the sheer length of the thing and how it goes on; his friend says, "Oh... but you see, in Austria, we enjoy listening to music."

Sometimes that comes to mind when people talk about big novels that "could have used a ruthless editor". That includes Stephen King, and the Harry Potter books - efficiency is admirable, but if all you ever want is pared-to-the-bone plot advancement, you may have forgotten to just enjoy reading.

I dunno.
posted by Wolfdog at 3:10 PM on October 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


I think The Dead Zone is a great book.

A man comes back from a living death, sacrifices his restored life to save the world-- and no one knows it or even notices much of anything out of the ordinary.

A Taoist Christ without God, followers, or an afterlife.

It was so devastating and elegaically numinous that it still brings me to my knees whenever I think about it too long.

The further I get from the publication date, the more it looms over the landscape of its time.
posted by jamjam at 3:33 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Apart from my own personal issues of distaste, I will say the following in praise of King. He writes really well from a working-class perspective without seeming preachy, and he takes his blue-collar characters seriously and doesn't caricature them much. Additionally, his skills at world-building are fantastic. One of the things that freaks me out about some of his books is how well he describes these very New England enclaves, puts you in that world, and then pulls the rug out from under you.
posted by pxe2000 at 4:21 PM on October 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the things that I like most about Stephen King--and I've read almost every single thing that he's published (except for the book he co-wrote about the Red Sox and Under the Dome, which I'll probably start on when I'm done with Doctor Sleep and The Twenty-Year Death)--is that he gets telling details about the places and people that he writes about spot-on right. And, contra to Ad hominem, they aren't unleavened exercises in nostalgia; King is often brutally honest about things that lesser writers might not choose to look at. His very first published book, Carrie, discusses teen bullying--not casual cafeteria politics, but pointless brutality to rival any story of teens driven to suicide by Facebook harassment that you read about these days. 'Salem's Lot, his second book, has an unflinching look at small-town decay that you wouldn't see on any reality show because it's not cute or morbidly fascinating, it's just damn depressing; the town was already dying when Barlow and Straker set up their antiques shop.

Even his more recent work isn't as nostalgic as you'd think; 11/22/63 indulges in this a little bit, but one of the things that struck me about it is that when the guy goes back in time, the town smells, really badly, because the mill is still running and it wasn't a perfume mill. (It makes me wonder if anyone has written a time travel book where a protagonist goes back to nineteenth-century London, and spends several days acclimating to the stench.) "Low Men in Yellow Coats" in Hearts in Atlantis, which describes a childhood not terribly unlike King's own (well, it's about the same era, anyway), is also not all Brylcreem-and-bubblegum nostalgia, nor is "The Body", for that matter.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:45 PM on October 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I really liked Harry Potter, but length isn't in itself a virtue, and the later books really needed a lot more editing than they got. Editing isn't about efficiency.
posted by jeather at 6:20 PM on October 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Count me as another who likes King's long, baggy novels. The short stories are efficient at delivery the goods, but I'm not reading King for the goods, I'm reading it for the yarns, the digressions, and most of all, for the language. I don't think there's any other writer who nails American speech the way he does, and the long books have far perfect little phrases to savor.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:12 PM on October 12, 2013


He does do language well.

I have a theory that King will take on writing projects/ go in directions that are sort of indulgent. I think The Shining works in significant part because it is an alcoholic written by a self-aware alcoholic. Under the Dome is written by a man steeped in small-town Maine and is freaked out by the prospect of climate change. Everybody fears plague (The Stand). Stories like the one about the magic word processor and the murderous washing machine seem really organic.

But what is with the shit, man? He seems to find shit scary instead of anything else, is it Freudian?

At any rate, King's afterword to Doctor Sleep struck me as almost petulant. Okay, you have grief against Kubrick, but that blinds you completely to the brilliance of the adaptation? It almost felt like he wrote Doctor Sleep because it was on his list of things to do, and it was on the list because he wanted to sort of blot out Kubrick's take on King's ideas.
posted by angrycat at 4:33 AM on October 13, 2013


Harvey Jerkwater: WHAT STEPHEN KING ISN'T: ...a guide to facial hair of U.S. Civil War generals.
Then how do you explain this, Mr. Jerkwater-know-it-all?

http://www.StephenKingGuide

posted by IAmBroom at 5:12 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


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