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Stephen King is 70

21 September 2017

Stephen King was born on 21 September 1947, and has been writing for about 60 years. I certainly haven’t read everything he wrote, but his 70th birthday seems a good time to reflect on some of his writing that I have read.

Two things that strike me about his writing is the variety of genres he writes in, and also the wide variety of quality. I find some of his books pretty good, and some absolutely atrocious.

The first book of his that I read was Needful Things. I’d seen some of his books in bookshops before, and hadn’t been tempted by them, but in 1992 Needful Things was new, and I read the blurb, and it looked interesting, so I bought it and read it, and liked it so much that I began to look out for some of his other books. I still still think it is one of his best books. It was just as well that that was the first one I read, because if I had picked up one of his inferior books, like The Tommyknockers, I might never have looked at another.

Stephen King is probably best-known for his supernatural horror stories, and I find that is the genre he is most at home in, and where his writing is at its best, though even there I find the quality varies enormously.

When I first started reading Stephen King’s books, I thought they were nihilistic. There are evil powers and evil creatures whose sole characteristic appears to be malice and malevolence. These affect the lives of ordinary people living ordinary lives in the everyday world. Another author who writes of supernatural powers breaking into the everyday world is Charles Williams. But in Williams’s books the evil forces are part of a cosmic battle between good and evil, part of a universe in which their existence makes some kind of sense.

But in Stephen King’s horror novels the evil critters make no sense at all. They are just evil, and they are just there. There is no attempt to account for the origin of evil or the existence of such creatures. It is enough that they should exist and be malevolent.

In most of Stephen King’s horror stories the battle is not between good humans and evil monsters. The battle between good and evil takes place entirely in the human heart. The central point is not the origin of evil, or its significance, but how people react to evil when they encounter it.

So in Needful Things people are offered something they really want, but the price is to play a rather nasty prank on someone else. In that sense it is an intensely moral book, a parable of how human greed can and often does destroy the lives of many people.

I think my favourite among Stephen King’s books is Pet Sematary. In part that was because the evil critter in it is the Wendigo, which featured in one of the best horror stories I’ve ever read, The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood (full text available here).

Pet Sematary is Stephen King’s zombie story, though he doesn’t use the word zombie in it, perhaps because zombies belong to another culture. But it is not the Wendigo or the zombies that are at the centre of the story, but the temptations of the human heart. In that sense it is like some of the writings of the Desert Fathers about demonic assaults and temptations, transferred from the desert to American suburbia.

Though I thought King handled the Wendigo and the zombies well, I can’t say the same of his vampire story, ‘Salem’s Lot. For anyone who has read Bram Stoker’s Dracula the plot was entirely predictable. The only good vampire story I’ve read, apart from Bram Stoker’s original, is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

One of King’s non-horror stories I liked was The girl who loved Tom Gordon. It’s about a girl who is lost in the woods.

Human beings are sociable creatures. At the beginning of the book of Genesis God says, “It is not good for man to be alone”.  And so for a child lost in the woods there is a need to find the way home. Even when your family is bickering and nagging till you feel you want to get away from them, when they are not there you miss them.

And human beings, being social, are very rarely alone in finding food. Even hunter-gatherers work in groups, and so for a girl lost in the woods, finding food becomes a problem. So this story is about human endurance in loneliness and adversity. The world around is not malevolent, but, like the evil critters in the horror stories, it is just there. The challenge is to find the way home and to keep alive for long enough to get there.

Spoiler Alert

If you haven’t read It, and might want to, the following section contains plot spoilers, so read no further.

One of the most disappointing of King’s books, for me at any rate, was It.

I generally liked the story but it has a disappointing ending. While the adults of the town go about their normal lives, the children of the town, or some of them at least, know that something evil lurks in the sewers. So in addition to the normal problems of pre-teen children in the 9-12 age group, they are aware of something else.

King’s novels are weakest (in my view), when he resorts to space aliens, as he does in It and The Tommyknockers. King is generally good at horror and fantasy, but less good at science fiction.

I suppose C.S. Lewis disabused me of the notion that space aliens are necessarily evil – evil travels from earth to outer space, rather than vice versa. King’s best writing is where ordinary people are confronted by extraordinary evil in this world. And that is where It falls short. His characters and their pubescent angst about sex and bullying and all the rest are realistic indeed, but the ending, where the evil turns out to be an incomprehensible creature from outer space, and salvation is found in a gang bang, made for a weak ending, for me.

For another take on It see this article by Brenton Dickieson: Why I Didn’t Finish IT as a Teen.

Having said that, I should perhaps qualify  my remark that Stephen King did not write good science fiction. I didn’t like his stories where the evil creatures turned out to be space aliens rather than supernatural evil powers roaming the earth. But his The Jaunt is one of the best (and most horrific) science fiction stories I have read, with nary a space alien in sight.

The nihilistic supernatural evil creatures and powers that populate his books, nihilistic as they may seem on the surface, seem to be a necessary foil to his human protagonists’ attempts to deal with them. Where they are absent, as in Gerald’s game or Misery I found myself bored silly, and unable to finish the books.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 September 2017 2:42 pm

    He is such a great writer! I can’t wait for the remake of IT!

  2. 21 September 2017 3:30 pm

    The Stand is my favourite and gave me a framework for understanding the alignment processes on both sides, toward or away from evil, and the effort that choosing good entails. And I loved the one that depicted the intertwining of hearts in marriage…. Darn, can’t remember the name. But I wondered then if it were an allegory for his own struggles with alcohol etc…

  3. David permalink
    21 September 2017 5:45 pm

    I highly recommend the Dark Tower books. As is King’s forte, the conflicts are at their most riveting when they take place within the human heart. As you might expect in a series that was written over twenty years, the style is not even between the books. Watch out for the self-indulgent inclusion of the author in the plot of one book.
    Having read almost everything King has written, however, I have to say that these are among the best of his work.

  4. 22 September 2017 1:06 pm

    I think you have pinpointed the reason I don’t like the horror genre: because it is nihilistic and assumes that the evil things are just there, with no explanation given, and that there is no possibility of them being defeated by good.

    I did enjoy Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, though I think it would have benefited from some editing.

    I liked Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (the novel, not the dreadful movie) and The Vampire Lestat but its sequels (where the vampires increasingly lacked a conscience) were less good. Especially when the guy from the Talamasca said he didn’t want to be a vampire, but then acquiesced in his fate pretty rapidly once it happened.

    The best “vampire novel” is the Terry Pratchett one, where Granny Weatherwax comes up with a very cunning plan to defeat the vampires (I shall not say more as I am trying to avoid spoilers!)

    • 22 September 2017 8:40 pm

      Thanks for the comments. I have to say that I didn’t like Interview with the vampire at all. I can take Stephen King’s unexplained evil creatures where they serve as a foil for human reactions, because I do believe that even if we can’t defeat evil, we can resist it determining our actions, so our response to it is important.

  5. 22 September 2017 2:23 pm

    Thanks for the link back Steve–and the comments on my blog. I agree (obviously) about the human heart bit, and I also agree that he doesn’t always explain why an evil mechanism exists (sometimes he does the vampire thing, setting it back tinto shady past).
    I love the point about Pet Sematary as zombie book. Cool.
    Where I critically disagree is the origin of IT. It isn’t actually an alien piece, nor does the being come from outer space in a space ship. That’s simply how the children who witnessed the fall of IT experienced it and could talk about it sensibly. IT is the fall of Satan story, including the self-delusion. Perhaps not THE Satan, but a demonic fall and reintegration into the earth story. This also explains the existence of providence throughout (figured as a turtle).
    Not that I think his theism-demonic construct is wholly consistent. I think the key, however, is that the mythic beings in IT are only ever perceived through a generation (or two) of human experience.

    • 22 September 2017 8:36 pm

      Thanks very much for the comment. Perhaps I need to re-read It, or at least the ending. I definitely thought it was a Tommyknockers kind of thing.

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