Thursday, October 05, 2006

Can This Relationship Be Saved?

I'm approaching this post with more ambivalence than usual. That's because I have such mixed feelings about its subject: Stephen King.

The New York Times (NYT) had an article on Wednesday announcing that King has a new novel, Lisey's Story, being released on October 24. This, four years after he reported his plans to retire.

Unlike the literati who have mocked him throughout his thirty-year career, I have the highest respect for both King's genre and talent. IMHO, a well-written horror novel deserves as much praise as any other well-written tale. Otherwise, why else would we be reading Edgar Allan Poe's stories a hundred and fifty years after his death?

I am second to none in my admiration of King's writing. He consistently creates characters who live and breathe for the reader. His skill is such that I was happy to overlook the sometimes slim threads holding the fabric of his plots together. King's vivid imagination, understanding of psychology and sly sense of humor delighted me for years.

I can still remember reading my first King novel, Salem's Lot, with my back pressed into the headboard of my bed, within easy reach of the crucifix hanging on the wall above my head. Although I was young, I found myself re-reading passages, just because I enjoyed the way he phrased them.

Looking back, I can identify three distinct phases in my relationship with King's writing, similar to the phases in any relationship:

Honeymoon: This was the halcyon time. After reading Salem's Lot, I went back to read Carrie. From then on, I read King's books in chronological order. I adored The Shining and Night Shift, both of which are still on my bookshelves. With a single exception, I loved everything he wrote from 1974 to 1981. Although I ignored it, that exception was a warning of things to come.

Unlike most King fans, I hated The Stand. I thought it was bloated, extravagant and over-the-top. I never finished it and can remember telling a friend that King's editor must have been run over by a truck because he certainly wasn't on the job. Robert R. McCammon also addressed the subject of Armageddon, and I thought did a much better job with his book, Swan Song.

However, still in the throes of infatuation, I cut King some slack. I read The Dead Zone and Firestarter with the same non-critical eye I had given to his other early works.

Disillusionment: While I enjoyed Cujo, I had a mild sense of unease. The usually optimistic King seemed influenced by a gloomier muse. Christine and Pet Sematary were also in this darker, less hopeful vein. I have since wondered whether the weight of his celebrity and the pigeon-holing of his work as "just" horror (which he reportedly resented) had anything to do with what I perceived as the mood of disgruntlement running through his work during this period.

While I had been faithful to King up to this point, I now began to flirt with the works of other horror writers. I'm willing to admit that the problem may have been mine. I was admittedly shallow, unwilling to explore the darker neighborhood in which we were now residing. At the same time, the novels King wrote between 1981 and 1985 left me feeling dissatisfied. There was a single bright point. I loved Skeleton Crew. To this day, I re-read some of those stories with real pleasure.

Estrangement: I started It with a great deal of trepidation. Gradually, I relaxed. I remember waking a fellow King fan late one night to read a particularly powerful passage. I was thrilled with the book . . . until the ending. The last chapters made no sense. They were like scenes from a bad LSD trip. I was furious. What had seemed like a wonderful book, had deteriorated into a soggy, incomprehensible mess.

Of course, I know now that It and the subsequent Tommyknockers were written during the height of King's alcohol and drug addiction. All I knew then was outrage. I read only three or four chapters of the Tommyknockers before throwing the book down in annoyance. I felt betrayed--not only by King, but by his editor and publisher. That dreck should never have made it to print. While I've borrowed a couple of his books from friends and the library in the years since reading Tommyknockers, I have not purchased another King book. Nor have I been able to finish any of those borrowed books.

King got help for his substance abuse issues. Unfortunately, it does not appear to me that he's gotten any help for his other problem. Apparently fame innoculates him from serious pruning of his verbiage. IMHO, Bag Of Bones was almost as bloated as The Stand. I don't believe King's editor is editing the novels any longer. The tight, crisp writing I fell in love with has given way to self-indulgent meanderings and lengthy scenes that do not contribute to the storyline. I read about half of Bag of Bones before getting irritated and putting it down.

It's unlikely that I will ever achieve the success King has enjoyed as a writer. As such, I don't have the chops to criticize his body of work. However, I have another--far more important--credential. I am a Reader. As a Reader, I have the right to express my opinion . . . including my disappointment.

Do King and I still have a chance to repair this dysfunctional relationship? I don't know. The NYT article said: "Mr. King wants readers, and critics, to recognize that he isn’t a hack." I hear his pain.

The article also said: "Because he was writing in a woman’s voice, Mr. King asked Nan Graham, the editor in chief at Scribner, to edit the book instead of Chuck Verrill, Mr. King’s longstanding personal editor. Ms. Graham said she helped with pacing and honing the title character."

If he's addressing the pacing issue, he's taking a step toward reconciliation. Maybe I'll take one, too, and buy the book. We'll see.

P.S. This is not my first post on Stephen King. If you are interested, please read my "A Tribute To A Pioneer" dated October 26, 2005.


Rolski said...

That's a really good post.

Stephen King is the ultimate enigma in terms of writing. I think he's a talented, literary author who just happens to have popular appeal.

The critics don't like that. Reminds them too much of Shakespear.

Maya said...

Rolski: Thanks for your post.

I agree King is an extraordinarily talented writer.

RMS said...

I completely agree with your article! I too loved his earlier books, yet intensely disliked The Stand (I'm so glad to see someone else hated it as well). It always felt like two books to me. Right around It and Tommyknockers were also when I stopped reading him. However, I really respect his work and still go back to read his earlier work. They are still some of my favorite books!

Maya said...

RMS: Thanks for stopping by.

I saw that the NYT listed his latest on their 100 best books of the year. I may just take a chance and buy it.