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King of the Macabre

  • Jul 3, 2009
Stephen King has an almost omniscient presence in popular culture.  If you don't read his books, you've probably seen a movie based off of his work.  And in some cases you probably don't even know it.  He came on the scene in 1974.  He's the real rags to riches deal that rarely happens.  Stephen King does horror and lots of it, yet he's also been able to appeal to non-horror fans.  And through the years King has been able to go outside of the horror genre and write in other things.  There's no mountain too high for Stephen King to climb.

Stephen King proves one thing about the world.  Whenever someone is getting too much attention and acclaim, there will always be that cult of people who must come forth and, uh, kneecap, if you will.  Sometimes people deserve it.  Is Stephenie Meyer really that good of a writer?  Well, no.  And while Stephen King is an awesome writer, he might never impress the literary greats like Harold Bloom.  So let's just say that Stephen King is one of the best bad writers.  Yeah, I think that works.

But being serious, Stephen King has established himself rather well.  And the more he wrote, the more serious his critics began to take him.  But let's be honest, a lot of the literary greats were heavily criticized in their time.  Even William Shakespeare (who Harold Bloom described as his mortal God) was heavily criticized in his time.  As was Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.  It's not uncommon.  I'm not saying Stephen King is as good as those guys (he can't compare to any of them, and there are a lot of better modern writers who are still living), I'm simply saying that perhaps before we start saying Stephen King won't survive the test of time, we should consider that we didn't think ANY of the literary greats would survive the test of time.  Can Stephen King?  Well, who knows. 

Regardless, King has had quite a career in literature and films.  He is one of the few authors who has achieved celebrity status.  By that I mean most of us see Stephen King as more than just a writer.  Most of us see him as a pop culture icon.

Rather than talk about the sum of his works, I want to talk mostly about his writing style.  It is an author's writing style that often most of us can identify him or her.  In most cases, Stephen King has tried on many different voices, but he just can't disguise it.  He's tried.  When he was Richard Bachman. And someone found him out.

As most of you know, Stephen King is primarily a horror writer.  He's got over 250 works total if you want to count each short story individually.  In terms of being an author he's quite prolific in the fact that one has to wonder if Stephen King ever stops.  He's said he was going to retire more than once, and each time he does there's always this, "But just one more," moment from him.  Where as most authors can no longer produce mammoths works as they get older, Stephen King still manages to pump out books that are quite lengthy.  His novel "Under the Dome," which will drop down in November, is already said to be longer than the uncut version of The Stand.  If this is true, you're looking at a book that's well over 1000 pages.  Old age hasn't really stopped Stephen King one bit.

His short stories, however, are not quite as rewarding as his longer novels.  Some of his shorts are, particularly the novellas you can find in some of his works (such as "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," "The Body," and "The Mist.").  Yet some of his shorter stories are not always memorable.  But some of the ones that are can be incredible.  The thing is, these are often longer short stories.  That span 30-70 pages (they're still within the word count of a short story, believe it or not).  It's his novel where the real appreciation for Stephen King comes out.

King wrote a book called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  You should check out my review (big wide self loathing grin on my face, here... well give me some credit!).  In this book he talked about how he went about his craft.  King doesn't plot out a whole lot.  Rather he takes two unlike things and combines them and asks what if.  So far the idea has gotten King pretty far.  In short, most of his stories really aren't too complex or complicated to understand.  This seems to be where most of the literary critics attack King.  It is never that King uses too many similes or metaphors, or that he is repetitive with his language or anything like that.  Most complain that King's stories are not intellectually stimulating.  Of course if you're actually picking up Stephen King for some intellectual stimulation then you have really big issues and should seek medical assisstance immediately.  King writes for the reason many write, to entertain. 

That's not to say King isn't a real genius at his craft.  He shows that he has a big understanding of the writing process and how it works.  The biggest insult to King, I think is that when he is often criticized by literary critics it is almost never about the language.  And King is actually very good with language and skill as he writes.  His books are simple to read.  Often they can be finished within a couple of days or so.  It is true, King doesn't deal with a lot of tough or complex themes.  He deals with a lot of familiar themes.  Many of his early works focused on the differences between adults and children, while others have focused on more religious themes.  But you don't have to be a genius to figure them out, and his stories are crafted in a way that it's perfectly fine to overlook them ifyou want.  Sometimes it really is just a good thing to be able to curl up on the couch or in a chair or something and just read a good book.  There's nothing wrong with reading for the sake of a good story.

That's not to say you should ignore writing technique and style.  Often my biggest complaint of some writers relates to story, but there's nothing wrong with looking at technique either.  King has a bit of it.  His language is easy to understand, mostly because he follows all the tips that George Orwell gives when writing.  Orwell wrote an essay that talked about techniques such as using shorter simpler words, using few adverbs and omitting needless words.  These are but a few things that King does when he writes.  But King still has his own style.  He uses a lot of parenthetic thoughts to better describe a moment or a scene.  And make no mistake, King can have beautiful prose, but a lot of it is the most basic of basic.  You won't find a lot labyrithian sentences or extended metaphors when it comes to King.  Indeed King himself does know what he is and isn't capable of us.  And he knows he won't put out something along the lines of A Tale of Two Cities or something like that.  Nor does he try.  He simply does the best that he can do with what he has.

If there was anything to complain about with King's use of language, it might be that he describes stuff a little long and that the pacing of some of his books takes a while.  King can often get carried away with his descriptive passages.  As you near the climax of his story you might feel it isn't moving fast enough.  And a lot of it comes from describing a little too much in too much detail.  It's fantastic, but it slows down the story.  While King omits A LOT from his work (see his first edition of The Stand in 1979 and compare it to the release in 1990, over 150,000 words were cut when it was released in 1979), he often can't seem to murder some of his darlings no matter what.  In the recent novel, Lisey's Story I remember reading through several pages only to find out how a photographer snapped a picture of LIsey's foot.  Sure, that was well and good, but it was prose that just carried on.  King also has a tendency to repeat himself, but I sympathize as I do it a lot myself.  When King's stories are slow... they're really slow.  Yet with some stories, them being slow is what makes them rewarding (The Shining).  Other times it can be a drag (Lisey's Story, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption).  That doesn't make the stories bad, it just means that if you're the kind of reader who picks up a slew of fast paced books like James Patterson or Iris Johanson... you probably won't be hooked by King right away. 

Yet there are quite a few books that go at a very good pace.  Desperation moves incredibly fast for Stephen King.  And despite being over 1100 pages, The Stand also moves at a pretty fast and steady pace.  These are two books that waste no time jumping into the plot, and yet before you really get down to it, there's always a lot of build up.  You'll never understand the point of a Stephen King novel until you're within the last quarter of the book or so.  Despite all the build up, each book usually ends with a showdown between good and evil at the end.  

Another quality that makes King a good writer that isn't always talked about are his characters.  Writers are also watchers.  You can't write about human life unless you're willing to sit down and observe it.  One thing King has even managed to silence his critics on is that he definitely has a true understanding of human nature.  His characters talk the way people might talk.  And King has no trouble using dialect in his writing (a skill even the best of the best writers have a hard time perfecting).  King also lets some of his characters do bizarre thing.  Yes, I said the word "lets" as in King doesn't assert too much control of his character.  King has stated that he doesn't like to play god.  If he does then his characters begin to feel like characters.  And yes, even the worst of his books, he does have well developed characters.  King also understands that good characters don't have to be likable.  Greg Stilson in The Dead Zone is an example of a character no one in their right mind would love, but you're supposed to hate him.  King does this expertly by having him kick a dog to death at the begining of the novel.  This is there to get you to dislike Stilson.  And not just dislike him, but let you know he isn't a bad guy.  This is what is nice about King's style.  He spends quite a bit of time developing and getting you to know his characters.  And he does a fairly good job with it.  Another example of a character that you're not meant to like is Carrie's mother (I forget the name of the book though... it had a girl named Carrie... and this girl named Carrie went to a dance... and this girl named Carrie had psychic powers... I think it was called: The Girl with Psychic Powers... sounds about right).  Carrie's mother is so nutty you actually feel sorry for Carrie.  And it's amazing how well King can manipulate your emotions in his stories.

The other complaint about some of King's work is that he's not much for endings.  Usually after the climax there isn't much of a satisfying resolution.  Sometimes it's a drag to come so far in a book and the last few pages be less than worthwhile.  Some of King's endings are really solid.  Such as Carrie, Christine, Pet Sematary and The Green Mile.  They're not happy endings, but at least you get the sense that you got a climax and a resolution out of them.  Yet some of his works such as Salem's Lot, The Stand (and yes, The Stand is probably the best book he ever wrote) and The Dark Tower series can be less than satisfying.  The good news is that King is a good enough writer that it's forgiveable.  The Stand may not have a satisfying ending, but the ride was good enough that after reading it you'll want to crack it open again.  But sometimes the ending can be ugly (The Dark Tower series comes to mind).  The good news is none of his endings are so bad that you wondered why you even bothered.

In recent times, King has shown that he can be quite a critic himself.  Especially when it comes to other authors.  While he has given praise to the likes of Jodi Picoult, Nora Roberts, John Irving, Dean Koontz (he's also said some of Koontz's work is just bad), J.K. Rowling and Mary Higgins Clark, he has also been quite critical of authors such as Danielle Steele, James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer.  Some might say King is being egotistical, I call it being opinionated as all authors are still people.  King has overcome a lot in his writing career and become really popular over the years.  By now he has his audience.  There is no need for him to appeal outside of that anymore.  Yet some may find themselves coming to King through other means.  There are some movie adaptations that are really good (Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Carrie) that shouldn't be missed out on. 

Lastly is this.  I won't tell you King never wrote a bad book, or a story that was bad.  He has.  With over 250 stories in your body of work not all of them can be winners.  But the good news is because of all the books, short stories and novellas he's written (did I mention he also has poetry?), there's at least one Stephen King love for everyone.  It's like a claw machine at Dave and Busters or something.  You can grab one and not like it but at least there's plenty more in there to choose from.

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July 14, 2009
This is awesome! You put so much time and thought into this. Kudos!
July 03, 2009
Um...This is the BEST review of an author I have ever read in my life!  Your review belongs in a newspaper m friend.  This was just simply amazing as the whole time I was reading it, i was going "ya, that's true..." or "ya, sometimes" and laughed out loud a couple of times about Lisey.  I actually just got done reading my first Stephen King book which was the first book in The Dark Tower series.  I noticed that King uses a lot of short sentences and the ending wasn't all that fantastic, but I thought it was a good book none the less.  I just wanted to also let you know that you can now Share your awesome reviews on sites like Twitter and Facebook using the new Share box at the top of the page :)  Again, just AMAZING!!!   
More Stephen King reviews
Quick Tip by . September 04, 2011
At his best, King's a nearly unparalleled master of the contemporary pop genre novel; at worst, an intolerably prolix hack. As an actor, he's too maladroit to execute a cameo competently, which he's proven time and time again.
Quick Tip by . June 20, 2011
Stephen King can really turn phrases, and many of his plot ideas are pretty original. But he keeps writing a lot of cliche characters: Alcoholics, bad parents, abused high school students, and others of the sort you might find in a Robert Altman movie.
Quick Tip by . October 01, 2010
Stephen King's On Writing is the best book on writing I've read. And his other books are so much more than just scary stories. I love the most recent ones--a real return to form.
Quick Tip by . August 09, 2010
Can't write a novel shorter than 600 pages, his self-insert in Gunslinger was horribly egotistical, cusses too much, but I keep turning the pages.
Quick Tip by . July 16, 2010
has had some great books and some dross. For a man so prolific it's about par for the course.
Quick Tip by . July 16, 2010
Personally, I am less a fan of his novels and more a fan of his brilliant short story collections. If you haven't checked em' out, I highly suggest it.
Quick Tip by . July 15, 2010
Stephen King not just give you an exciting and tense story, he makes you meditate in the end of each book.
Quick Tip by . July 15, 2010
Stephen King not just give you an exciting and tense story, he makes you meditate in the end of each book.
Quick Tip by . July 13, 2010
What a fascinating man.He has such a great imagination.
Quick Tip by . July 03, 2010
maybe one of the best modern writers - I could use less gore, but the stories are incredible and I can't put them down!
About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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Stephen Edwin King (born September 21, 1947) in Portland, Maine, is an American author of contemporary horror, fantasy and science fiction. Having sold an estimated 300–350 million copies of his books, King is best known for his work in horror fiction, in which he demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the genre's history. Many of his stories have been adapted for other media, including movies, television series and comic books. King has written a number of books using the pen name "Richard Bachman" and one short story where he was credited as "John Swithen"
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Filmography (Director): Maximum Overdrive
Birth Date: September 21, 1947
Movie Writing Credits: Pet Sematary, Maximum Overdrive, Cujo, Sleepwalkers

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