I guess I don’t need to say much here. Stephen King is one of those writers who needs little introduction. You know who he is, even if you’ve somehow never read one of his numerous books or seen one of the numerous film adaptions of his work. King has been one of the most popular and prolific writers of American fiction for about four decades now. But who is Stephen King? Not the person, the author. Setting aside everything that everybody knows, what kind of writer is Stephen King? He’s not nearly so shallow as to be lumped in with the Dan Browns and Tom Clancys of the world, but nor is he quite talented enough to land in the same bracket as the literary heavies. He’s one of those in-betweeners, and you never quite know what sort of book you might find when you pick up one of his novels. Could be anything from a tacky little creep-show to a hidden gem to a bloated epic to a grim character study. My take: he’s a writer of no small talent, and it would be a great mistake to dismiss him, even if the going can get a bit rocky.
I got on board the King train later than most people probably do: twenty-two years old, I picked up It off the library shelf, not expecting anything terribly special. One of my schoolteachers was a huge Stephen King fan (not just any one of my teachers either; she was the head of the writing department! and of quite discerning taste, thus her opinion carried a good deal of weight) but I wasn’t really interested at the time in reading some YA horror crap. Basically, I was picturing something like goosebumps for grown-ups. What I got, however, knocked my socks off. It certainly isn’t a perfect book, but it’s a hell of a ride, and packed to the gills with skillfully drawn characters and brilliant scenes and real human emotion.
Anyway. Long story short, I picked up a lovely hardcover collection of King’s first three novels. And this is what I think of them:
Hm… Carrie is an odd book. You probably know what it’s about: creepy girl with telekinetic powers is abused by her mother, gets harassed and bullied by her schoolmates, goes crazy at the prom and kills a bunch of people. The truth is, there’s not a lot there; this is really more of a novella than a full-fledged novel, and a lot of what’s here is extraneous stuff that feels like it’s been added on to bulk up the page count. The core of the story is really great, full of powerful scenes and interesting characters, but there’s a fair bit of detritus to sift through. All the “post-event” analysis and interview excerpts actually end up taking you out of the book, rather than building a sense of reality. Perhaps it’s the tone, or maybe it’s just the constant interruptions. Either way, this is mostly a book about building up towards a big event (the ill-fated prom) and everything that gets in the way of that event bears an extra burden of interest, in that the reader is constantly feeling the urge to skip ahead to the good bit, so that middle section has to really work. I’m not sure it does.
That said, I liked this book well enough. It does make for an odd start to Stephen King’s career, though. Even having only read a handful his books, this one still felt somehow out of place. I think maybe King was still searching for his style and themes at this point, and hadn’t quite found a way yet to bring it together.
Ah… ‘Salem’s Lot. I’m not quite sure how to approach this book. It’s a very King-like story, so much so that I’m willing to call it Stephen King’s debut novel. I mean, I know Carrie came first, but Carrie is such an outlier that it almost feels like it belongs to a different writer. Most of what we now recognize as “Stephen King” tropes appear here: the almost magical young boy, the inquisitive writer character, the old-fashioned-with-a-fresh-coat-of-paint monster, the small-town Maine setting, the contrasts of nostalgia and horror, etc etc. If you want to read a book that encapsulates King, you could do worse than to pick this one.
That said, I’m not terribly fond of ‘Salem’s Lot. Basically, my issue is that King does this book again later, and better by far. I didn’t really connect with the characters, and most of the horror stuff came off verging on cliched or dull. The plot meanders rather terribly, and takes a long time going nowhere. It does a lot of the same stuff, but it just works a lot better there, to the point that ‘Salem’s Lot seems almost a prototype for that book.
The Shining is one of those King stories which has been almost totally eclipsed by the movie version in the public consciousness. I’ve never even seen the movie (I loath Kubrick, but that’s a topic which deserves more than a parenthetical aside to address) but it’s become so embedded in our culture that I can recall all the most famous moments as though I had. So I was a more than a little surprise – and quite pleased – to see that nearly all those moments are unique to the film (the creepy twin girls, “here’s Johnny,” all work and no play, etc) and that the book had a life of its own, unspoiled.
This book is interesting in that it’s pretty much a complete 180 from ‘Salem’s Lot. The huge town-spanning cast of that novel is parred down here to a half-dozen or so named characters, and mostly confined to a single location. And what a location! The Overlook Hotel is one of King’s best creations, and really shows off his skill as a world-builder. I love reading books that feel like they’re part of a larger world, and the Hotel feels like a setting with enough story for a dozen novels.
But the real star here is the character work. King’s number one strength has always been his ability to draw believable and ingratiating characters. I’d say that there’s no other skill more necessary to good horror. Nobody really gives a shit about jock/nerd/slut archetypes getting chopped up in the woods, which is why it’s not scary. When bad things happen to archetypes, it’s laughable. When bad things happen to real people, it’s terrifying. Really good horror is all about the characters, which is something King clearly understands. All three of the main characters in The Shining have a real humanity to them. It brings to mind the phrase “walking off the page.” Jack’s struggles with alcoholism, Danny’s confusion and Wendy’s marital indecision are all deeply relatable and immediately familiar.
It’s not a perfect book by any means, and far from a masterpiece. That said, it’s a terrific read with a good deal going on under the surface that tackles some really tricky situations in an intelligent fashion. Unlike Carrie or ‘Salem’s Lot, I liked The Shining enough that I’d recommend it to pretty much anybody.
So, that’s Stephen King. I’m still not totally sure how I feel about him, and I’m not in any great hurry to pick up Dark Tower or anything, but I think that I’ll be coming back someday soon. He’s one of those rare authors able to straddle the line between fun and smart without giving up one for the sake of the other.