Stephen King: A Prehumous Appraisal with Bonus Digression
It can be difficult to separate nostalgia from the measured appreciation of a favorite writer. Like the woman at the bar who seems to get a little better looking with each drink you take, a favorite novel from yesteryear often shines more brilliantly with each passing season. By association, so might the writer of that novel. This is why every time I crack a Stephen King book these days, it's with some trepidation. Not the kind that has had readers drooling over his output for decades, but the warning kind that whispers, "Hey, Kid. This might be the one where he really stumbles and you see that the emperor has no clothes.”
I blame The Tommyknockers for making such heretical musings possible in the first place. Well, maybe Insomnia didn’t help any. But these are exceptions that prove the general rule of King’s excellence. Rereading his best novels and short stories is all you really need to do to disavow yourself of any reservations. Quality speaks for itself. But picking up a newer work can be its own kind of revelation. Upon reading 11/22/63, for instance, I was reminded, with especially great force, just how magical King's prose can be, and that it does indeed transcend the opiate of sentimental attachment (not that I was honestly dubious on this point). There's something about the types of characters that call out to him as a writer and that we then encounter as readers. There's something about the way he lets a scene tumble out of his hand like dice from a cup. And there's something about the way he makes us feel while living in whatever world he's created. All of these are unique and instantly recognizable characteristics of his writing.
Though I was a huge King fan in my teenage years, even then I felt that the occasional comparison to Charles Dickens was hyperbolic. Now I'm not so sure. Dickens's novels are far more consistent than King's. His narrative voice was as finely tuned as it was inexhaustibly fueled. But King has some of that same octane in his arteries, for damn sure. He’s perhaps a little less interested in changing the world than Dickens was at his most powerful, but there is subversion to be found here and there in his works. Hell, Needful Things is practically an all-out satire. Dickens and King have this much in common, anyway: story comes first; everything else must fall in line. I’ve compared Clive Barker to Dickens, based on the bottomless pits of their imaginations. I’ve compared Robert McCammon to Dickens, owing mostly to a general shared knack for atmosphere and the use of language (including character names) in McCammon’s Matthew Corbett novels. And now I compare Stephen King to Dickens because he is, in the best sense of the term, his generation’s Writer of the People, just as Dickens was his generation’s. While we’re at it, let’s not forget that all four of these writers are well known for having written terrifying fiction at one time or another, or that their work is likely to be read long after you and I have moldered in our graves.
I didn’t set out to make this post into a survey of King’s work (check out the Stephen King Revisited blog series, spearheaded by Richard Chizmar of Cemetery Dance, for that addictive and adroitly handled effort), and I’m stopping well before anyone can accuse me of penning a screed. I just felt a tingle in my fingertips that told me they wanted to put down a few thoughts about one of the greatest horror writers that has ever lived. He’s getting on in years, too. I’d rather write something like this while he’s still with us. There will be paeans without end when he does pass from this mortal realm, hopefully many years hence. That’s as it should be, of course, but why wait for the band wagon? I wonder if Mr. Chizmar was similarly motivated to start up the Revisited project ...
Despite my fondness for King’s work, by the way, there is much I haven’t read. He’s hard to keep up with, and I have a lot of interests. Those under a certain age can never fully comprehend the pressure that comes with aging. When you’re young, it’s easy to envision a future spent catching up on all the leisure activities you haven’t made time for, but it doesn’t work that way. If anything, I think many of us, as we age, spend less time reading fiction, for instance, or listening—really listening—to music, than we did when we were young. Luckily, we’re often more selective, too. We make better decisions about what to spend our time on. This is especially important for us writers. Unless we’ve achieved that golden dream of making a full-time living from our craft—Stephen King will forever be a special example of what’s possible in that regard—we need to stem the tide of what we let in and increase the flow of what we put out.
And so I do and don’t envy those who are able to stay on a narrow, focused path from an early age. They sometimes attain much while young, but surely something is taken from them in exchange. Then again, isn’t that always the case? Everything comes at a cost: where you are, where you might have been, where you long to end up. All of it carries a penalty, so maybe it’s best to focus on the unique rewards that adorn the paths we have chosen, or had thrust upon us. There is a wide variety of circumstances doled out in this life, after all. I don’t know of a single one that involves perfection. Some are debilitating, in fact. If yours isn’t, count yourself charmed.
And if you need to take your mind off all this heavy lifting, thank your lucky stars that a Stephen King novel is never far from reach. Chances are he has the cure for what ails you … although it, too, may come dear, at least for some of his more hapless characters.