Thursday, June 04, 2015

king hell

If you are or have ever been an avid reader of Stephen King's books, and why wouldn't you be, then this is a fascinating little project: the Guardian's James Smythe is re-reading all of King's novels in chronological order of their publication, i.e. starting with 1974's Carrie.

My King-reading history (also alluded to in the Cell review) goes something like this: I read The Shining when I was about 13 or 14 and was absolutely blown away by it, to the extent that I went on to read just about everything he wrote between that book (his third published novel, first published in 1977) and 1991's Needful Things. As I recall it was at the time of the paperback publication of It in 1986 that I "caught up" and started buying the books as they came out. Having been less than blown away by the sequence of The Tommyknockers, The Dark Half and Needful Things I took a breather from buying the books which has pretty much lasted to this day, broken only by 1998's Bag Of Bones (which was pretty good) and 2006's Cell (which was OK).

As I said here, my favourite Kings are the sequence which runs from The Shining via The Stand (note that the standard edition of this now appears to be the 1300-page extended version rather than my 750-page original version) and The Dead Zone to 1980's Firestarter. Anyone with the vaguest interest in fiction in general should read these, and should ignore their usual categorisation as "supernatural horror" or such like. Firstly, of those four only The Shining really falls into that category, and secondly, just like the science fiction/not science fiction thing, it's ridiculous. You might just as rationally decide not to read any books which featured dogs, rivers, the colour yellow or the month of September anywhere in the plot.

Needless to say there'll be agreements and disagreements. Here's a few:
  • Given that I greedily gobbled up everything that followed The Shining, it seems odd in hindsight that I never went back and read either of its two predecessors, Carrie and Salem's Lot. I have however seen the Brian De Palma film of Carrie and the David Soul TV movie of Salem's Lot, both of which were pretty good.
  • Smythe is a fan, so it's no surprise that the verdict on most of the books is that they're pretty good. One that he notes as an exception to this is Firestarter, which you'll recall I listed (and still do) as probably my favourite King of all. One of the main criticisms seems to be that you can summarise the plot in a single paragraph: well, I'm pretty sure you could do that for every King book, and indeed every literary work ever written. Here's The Shining in a single sentence: bloke gets job at hotel, goes mental. See? Easy. 
  • Conversely, he regards the rabid dog story Cujo very highly, whereas I recall not thinking that much of it. I can illustrate that for you by telling you that I'm pretty sure it's the only one of the "classic era" Kings that I own that I've never been back and re-read. Conversely I must have read Firestarter at least half-a-dozen times. 
  • He also lists The Dark Half, which I'd rate as no better than average by King's standards, as his favourite of all. 
  • He's generally quite keen on the early books written as Richard Bachman, and so am I, although I didn't read any of them until they were anthologised as The Bachman Books in the mid-1980s. Interestingly, modern versions of this anthology omit the school-shooting story Rage as there was some suspicion that it inspired at least one copycat incident. My copy includes it, although as it happens I think it's the weakest of the four. I agree completely that The Long Walk and to a lesser extent The Running Man (almost nothing like the very silly Arnie film based on it) are obvious precursors of The Hunger Games and its sequels. 
  • I agree completely that in comparison with most of his other books 1983's Christine is a bit of a turkey.
  • I also agree that his very next published book, Pet Sematary, is probably the most purely horrific thing he ever wrote, for general gruesomeness and NO DON'T OPEN THAT DOOR scariness. 
  • I furthermore agree that the vaguely science-fiction-y lost aeroplane story The Langoliers, the first part of the collection of short novel-length stories Four Past Midnight, is one of the very best things he ever wrote.
  • The notes that monitor the recurring threads in King's books are fascinating: most obviously writing about writers and writing, which he returns to obsessively, but also the various metaphors for addiction that run through the books, again echoing King's own real-life struggles - he claims not to remember the writing of either Cujo or The Tommyknockers.
  • As with any other prolific author whose works you read a lot of, which ones you cherish the most is dependent on a whole host of external factors, most importantly the order you read them in. The first ones you read will tend to make the most impression on you, and over-familiarity with the author's stylistic tics may eventually put you off reading more. 
The key points about all of King's oeuvre are firstly that even the slightly ropier books (Cujo, Christine, Cell - there's a crackpot theory for you; King books starting with "C" are not so good) are absurdly, relentlessly gripping, and secondly that what makes him different from the Shaun Hutsons and the James Herberts is that he writes characters that you can care about, lots and lots of them in the case of the epic books like The Stand, where he juggles 20-odd major characters. Failure to understand that this is what makes him great, rather than the gruesome bits (though he's obviously pretty good at them too) is probably the reason some of the film adaptations are so bad, Pet Sematary being a particularly egregious example.

3 comments:

D MackD said...

Wow. Great timing bate.
I hope lots of people read this post as I've just had my first novel published.
It's called "Yellow River" and is all about a Chow Chow called 'September' getting into various scrapes around Dongying.

electrichalibut said...

Does it include that joke about a yellow dog walking into your house when the door's open?

D MackD said...

Of course it does, silly.
Elboristo. Du?