Happy Birthday, Stevie!

Hey, last week, did you wish a happy birthday to Stephen King?  He writes a LOT, but does that make him great writer?  If I eat a lot, does that make me a great eater?  Nobody can take away his originality, that’s for sure.  He blazed some new literary trails, but I kind of expected a little more originality than that over-used black-and-white picture of the author leaning on a fist thing.

Stephen King is fabulous at creating characters and putting them into remarkable situations, all of that is very true, but remember the show Dallas?  Remember when you watched a whole season of stuff happening, and then it was all a dream?  That’s what often happens in a Stephen King story.  I find it difficult to accept the conclusions to his stories, and without a conclusion that ties the story together, you’ve got crap.  But almost everyone who reads this, including the dope who wrote this, is dreaming of writing all that “crap” too.

Let’s look at a few stories, and keep in mind that these are just a few, and I read them a while back.  My recollection may not be on target with some of the small details, but I still have a good grasp of the story as a whole


The Stand

There’s someone out in Las Vegas who seems to be Satan-like.  Satanic.  Damn evil.  This new Satan’s got nuclear missiles, and has unleashed something plague-like across the nation.  People are falling under some kind of spell that is dividing them into a good vs. evil kind of thing.  How unique.  So a bunch of goodies-goodies decide they must stop Satan, looking sort of like a hippie in a denim jacket.  They trek across the desert for a showdown, which makes no sense because they’re not armed at all, while Satan has an army, and nuclear missiles.  In the final showdown, he sets off a missile. It climbs into the sky, ready to begin the apocalypse.  Until….!  God reaches out of the sky to stop the missile.

That’s the most contrived, convenient, con job of an ending I ever read.  A writer is supposed to create a web of all kinds of events, but there is supposed to be a strong thread that runs throughout and holds it all together. When the climax of a story is reached, it’s got to be something that has been connected to the rest of the story so that you suddenly feel as if the ending was there all along, right next to you, but you just didn’t give it the attention it needed.  An ending is supposed to make you say, “Oh, yeah, that’s right.”  It’s supposed to be unexpected but not entirely a surprise.  It’s not supposed to be cheaply dropped in like a Lego block of the wrong color.


How about one of his most popular stories ever:   It:

There’s a circus in town, it’s somewhere around the 40’s or something like that.  There are a bunch of drunken fools who come upon a circus clown, and they literally beat the life out of him. About forty years later, the children of the drunks are befallen to strange circumstances.  They see strange things that nobody else sees.  They’re tormented by the ghost of the clown.  Also, children in town are disappearing.  So far, I’m good with all this.  Then the children of the drunks put two and two together and connect it all to the clown.  They have a mission: stop the clown. They follow him around.  Some can’t take it, commit suicide.  They eventually follow him to a water-sewer-treatment type industrial place.  They follow him into this little room with a little door.  They enter.  What’s inside?  A giant spider.  Yep.  Really, and all the missing people are stuck to the wall in web-like cocoonish things.  The children of the drunks kill the spider.  The End.

I can give you more examples from more stories, like From a Buick 8 and The Colorado Kid, and I’m sure that other books that I haven’t read YET follow this trend.  I didn’t yet read The Cell, but a good friend recently read it and told me that it follows the same non-concluding formula.  I admit, these are only a handful of the gazillion things he’s written, but someone please tell me how that spider makes sense.  Is this the work of a great writer?  I dunno.

So, this begs an obvious (I don’t like the word “obvious,” but that’s for another day) question:  if I don’t like King’s books, why do I keep reading them?  Here’s the thing.  His “writing” is brilliant.  By writing, I mean his sentences.  Reading a King book is like having him or someone tell you the story, live and in person. It’s as conversational as can be, and that’s how I want a book to be written.  One of my problems with most fiction is that I end up editing and proofreading instead of enjoying the story because too many writers don’t know how to use commas or semicolons correctly.  Well, as for semicolons, there’s usually no reason to ever use one.  They can always be avoided, but it disturbs me even more when a writer uses a semicolon in dialogue.  That’s just plain stupid and really impossible, but that’s for another day.

King creates characters differently than most people.  He doesn’t spend a lot of time on physical description.  Instead, he focuses on behavior.  I would much rather know what a character is like on the inside instead of the outside.  Some writing teachers have students create extensive character descriptions, which I find to be a waste of time, but that’s just me.  Other writers might find it extremely effective, and then that’s a good thing.  Hey, whatever works.  But King tends to give me wants, likes, dislikes, fears, and all that good stuff.  When I read, I have a movie running through my head, and I’m visualizing everything.  I also carefully pick my own actors to portray the characters, so I might decide Sandra Bullock, a brunette, is more fitting for a character who may have been described as blonde.  Never know.

King also is terrific at creating conflict.  Maybe not resolving a conflict, but definitely creating one.  In a college screenwriting class, the teacher likened creating a conflict and advancing a plot to putting a character up in a tree.  Then, as the character tries to get down, you start throwing rocks at him.  So as the plot moves towards a conclusion/resolution, you throw more rocks.  Eventually, the character will have to find a way down, which would be the conclusion.  Whatever helps or causes that character to get down from that tree must make sense.  He can’t just suddenly appear on the ground leaving the readers to come up with their own explanations, which is another thing that happens often in Kingland.  I’ve often compared a King novel to having a most wonderful appetizer, salad, and entree, but then dessert sucks.  Eh, looking at it that way isn’t so bad.

In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a child is lost in the woods along a hiking trail and has reason to believe some kind of creature is following her.  She’s a big Red Sox fan, and King works in a lot of Sox information throughout the story, showing that he’d thoroughly researched the team.  That’s nice, but the end of the story is one of those “well, you’ll have to decide for yourself” inconclusive endings.  I don’t like that.  Define it.  Pick one.  Make it so, either way, doesn’t matter which, just make it so.

In The Colorado Kid, a body is found sitting on a bench near the ocean, or a bay, I forget which.  Two old-time newspaper men do their darndest to investigate who he is, how he got there, and why he’s dead.  There are a handful of leads, dead ends, and near misses, but by the end of the story we know more about the old newspaper men and how their office works, but we barely know any more about the dead guy than when we started.

In From a Buick 8, an old car pulls into a dusty, Pennsylvania gas station.  A wizened old man is behind the wheel, but then he’s gone.  The local police tow the car to their garage and store it until the owner can be found, but things happen.  Mysterious lights flashing, strange weather, and noises.  Bat-like creatures come out of the trunk, and a deputy goes into the trunk, and what happens to him is never explained other than his boot is found, nor is anything else explained.  The story just – ends.  King did some research about cars, but not much about conclusions.  Nothing is resolved, and it’s all left for you to decide what happened.

In Duma Key, a man wants to get away for a while and stays in a beach house in the Florida Keys, the kind of house so close to the water that it’s up on stilts in the sand.  The area is sort of haunted, people appear and disappear, zombies from the sea enter his house, and an eccentric woman with an art store has paintings that seem to depict some of the strange things that happen, and the main character ends up exploring one of the island’s larger mansions, which he is strangely drawn to while chased by apparitions.  King did a lot of research about the Florida Keys as well as The Weather Channel, but not a lot of effort went into yet another inconclusive story.

In Lisey’s Story, a recent widow is stalked by an obsessive fan of her dead husband who was a famous writer.  He believes she has a copy of an unpublished manuscript, and he’ll stop at nothing – including maiming her breast with a can opener, to which she reacts rather casually.  She’s equally casual in her lack of reporting the assault to the local police, even though up until her husband’s death she’s been little more than just a tag-along, back in the shadows kind of wife who had done nothing much at all except – be there.  She learns that her husband somehow transported himself to an alternate world, a place where a giant caterpillar-like creature was pursuing him and where he gained his inspiration for his horror stories.  Lisey manages to conveniently lure the obsessed fan into this alternate world where the giant caterpillar eats the fan.  Rather convenient.

Again, this is a small sample of the immense catalogue King has produced.  It’s often said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and a team is only as strong as its weakest player.  Therefore, I’ve used two clichés in one sentence, and they were not used very accurately.

ps. some of this was lifted from a post you never read from about 5 years ago.  jus’ sayin’.

37 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Stevie!

  1. Bless you, Mr. King. I’ve often thought that most of his books would make great short stories; but as novels? Well, I just don’t think there’s enough in there to justify the word count. It’s like the difference between a great X-Files, Fringe, or Twilight Zone episode, and when someone tries to take a similar concept and spin it out into a feature film. Except they add nothing new, thematically, and the whole thing just feels … Stretched.

    But yeah, he writes like a demon.

  2. Hi Rich,
    Back when I was still teaching, I used to ask the students in my English classes who they liked to read. They always said Stephen King. I’d never read him, so I went out and got a few of his books and checked them out. Based on the ones I read, I think King is an excellent storyteller, but a poor stylist. Some of his sentences grate on me. So we seem to have opposite opinions of his writing. I totally agree with you about the ending of The Stand. It’s a real cop ou, a deus machina. I have a reading recommendation for you which is related, a novel called Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. The MC is a Stephen King fan. It’s southern and it’s a great read. I posted a review on my blog yesterday if you’d like more info. Ron

    • that’s interesting how we look at it differently but in some ways the same. i will try to find that book, thanks for the recommendation. should i be careful if i read your review? are there spoilers, so maybe i should stay away?

      • He is (though he didn’t advertise the fact when he was first starting out in the writing business) but I think he far surpasses his father. Heart Shaped Box, the first book of his I read, is reeeaaally good and creeped me out like fuck. He also has a comic series called Locke and Key (the last volumes of which are just now coming out) which is one of the best comics I’ve ever read. Incredibly interesting and original story line, super dark but still funny, and really great artwork. I can’t recommend Joe Hill enough.

      • thanks. that’s enough reason for me to check him out. til now, i just figured he was only published because of his father. but then again, we all know there are plenty of great unpublished writers out there.

      • Don’t worry, he totally deserves the praise he receives. His short story collection 20th Century Ghosts is great, too. He also wrote a story for Shadow Show, an anthology dedicated to Ray Bradbury that came out in August, and it was one of the best in the collection (in my opinion). I like his horror because it’s subtle, not “OH SHIT HACKED UP BODIES AND HILL BILLY PSYCHOPATHS.”

  3. I lack the attention span to read King. Everyone thinks he’s so amazing at creating suspense, but I just find most of his stories to be drawn out and boring.

    The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was the longest book I’ve ever read, and I’m not talking about the number of pages.

  4. Great post. I have a love/hate with a lot of his novels too. But I can’t say enough about his book ‘On Writing’. Best how-to I’ve ever read! Hands down!

    • I read that book but did not know about half of it was going to be an autobiography. Maybe that is necessary for such a book.

      I usually listen to books on CD instead of actually reading them, so I appreciated that he read the book himself and did not hire an actor.

      • I agree that King is good about reading his own audiobooks. Bag of Bones is a good one that comes to mind. And I did forget about the EXTENSIVE autobiographical portion of On Writing. I usually just skip that part of the book anyway! 🙂

      • he often has craig wasson read his stories from a male point of view and mare winningham for females. they both do great jobs. but if it’s introductions or so forth, king usually reads it himself.

  5. I’ve read many of his books and could not finish many of his books. I never finished The Stand, so thank you for letting me know what happened. Glad I didn’t muddle through it. He is a brilliant writer but sometimes takes so darn long to get to the point, I forget about caring. Duma Key has been sitting in my bookshelf for years, unread. The one book of his I always remember is Rose Madder. The others that I’ve read fall away quickly from memory.

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