Scorn, admiration, disdain, esteem, condescension, respect.
These words all describe my attitude, at various times over the last quarter century, to Stephen King, who celebrated his 61st birthday on Sept. 21.
I’ve read better writers. I’ve read far worse ones. Of all the writers I’ve read, though, I have to say that King is the one who flummoxes me the most.
How can he be so crude? And so very good? How can one book be a near-disaster and another a near-miracle?
This column is too short to answer such questions, but I’m going to make an effort. And I’m going to say some things that will make some of my former English profs wince. Might as well get the first such statement out of the way:
Stephen King is a writer of literature.
Not schlock (OK, sometimes), not pulp fiction (all right, now and then) and not cheeseball horror (unless he’s really enjoying himself). At his best, Stephen King writes literature. And he’s writing more of it in recent years than he did early in his career. Which means he’s doing what all writers, all artists, are supposed to do: He’s getting better.
Wait, wait; let me backtrack. My first reaction to Stephen King: No reaction at all. In my late teens and very early 20s, I simply refused to read him.
Part of that was personal. I had cut my teeth on the genres, growing up on science fiction, mysteries, horror. By my college years, I had become thoroughly sophomoric, in the true sense of that word: I was a scholar, yes? It would not do for me to waste my time on a scribbler of penny dreadfuls about psychokinetic girls, haunted cars and bad dogs.
As usual, my applecart was upset by a woman. During that time in life when one’s early 20s begin to give way to one’s mid-20s, provoking the first of many crises regarding aging, a woman convinced me to read some Stephen King.
Besotted with her as I was, I vowed I would not become besotted with some hack writer she liked. Grudgingly, I opened one of King’s early works (“The Dead Zone,” perhaps) and began to read, looking for all the mistakes King’s critics had told me I’d find.
After a couple of hours, the woman looked up from her own book and asked me how it was going. My answer was withering: “I don’t see how you stand him. If I read one more time in this novel that somebody’s throat clicked because they were scared or emotional or whatever, I’m going to hurl this book against the wall.”
This outburst resulted in the ruination of what had been a cozy, even romantic, bookish evening. But I finished the book. There was something about it that did grab me. I guess you’d have to call it atmosphere; King knew how to spook me.
Still fussing, I allowed to the woman that I might try reading one more. She handed me “The Stand.” And that was the end of my resistance to Stephen King.
The author’s colossus of a novel (800 pages in that edition, the longest thing he’d published at that juncture) blew me away. I’ve read some very fine apocalyptic fiction, including George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides” and Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach.” King’s book wasn’t necessarily better than those, but it more than held its own - and he also earned my respect for mixing horror into the science-fiction milieu.
“The Stand” was my ticket to a seat on the Stephen King Rollercoaster. It’s a strange machine, where thrilling, gut-wrenching drops into the abyss alternate with tepid curves that wouldn’t trouble a 2-year-old.
I read “The Shining,” devastatingly good. I read “Christine” - not bad, but this haunted Plymouth still felt like a used car. I loved “Pet Sematary,” which spared no characters, not even children. I hated “Cujo,” a dog of a book, and wasn’t keen on “Firestarter,” which read like “Carrie” warmed over.
I read all these in the mid-1980s, familiarizing myself with King’s early work. His mastery of plot and atmosphere and character was undeniable, but his stylistic tics and tendency to write gross-out scenes involving vomit or some such were off-putting.
At that point, I could have taken him or left him. But it was in the mid-1980s that Stephen King started getting much, much better.
There were exceptions. “IT” was intolerable, bloated; would it never end? “The Tommyknockers” boasted a cool psycho-UFO presence that never lifted off. “The Eyes of the Dragon” was kid stuff.
Published nearly simultaneously with those three, though, was King’s turning-point book, “Misery,” about a famous writer who winds up in the clutches of a deranged fan. It’s an amazing work, even though it’s self-referential; King’s fame by that time was vast. As usual, King delved deep into the disturbia of the human soul. Looking at “Misery” now with the advantage of hindsight, it seems prescient - a foreshadowing of the depths of celebrity culture to which our society would sink in the 2000s.
King’s faults - the gross-out stuff, the sometimes unconvincing dialogue, the excess verbiage - were falling away. “Misery” was followed in time by “Dolores Claiborne,” “Gerald’s Game” and a couple of underrated novels called “Insomnia” and “Desperation.” The former showed off King’s talent for fantasy while the latter was a gritty, scary-as-hell descent into the desolate perils of the contemporary American West.
With all these books, it didn’t hurt that King had gotten sober. Substance abuse marred his early work, to the point that he could not recall writing parts of “Cujo” (lucky him).
And I haven’t even mentioned King’s short-story collections. An early one, “Different Seasons,” was good, but other proto-efforts such as “Night Shift” didn’t thrill me. Yet King’s growth as a writer is arguably more evident in the shorter yarn than it is in his novels; 1993’s “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” was excellent, as was “Everything’s Eventual,” from 2002. King’s next book, due in stores Nov. 11, is another collection of short tales, this one called “Just After Sunset.”
King is entering the sunset years. People who are 61 often talk of retirement, which King started doing long ago, especially after being struck by a van and injured in 1999.
Yet he keeps writing. Apparently he can’t help himself; it’s something he has to do.
For my part, I have to keep reading him. Every time I’ve been ready to give up, he pens something I really enjoy.
Stephen King has put up with a lot of crap over the years. The late Stanley Kubrick adapted “The Shining” for the big screen but sniffed that the novel itself was not literary. The literary critic Harold Bloom bristled when King was recognized in 2003 with a lifetime achievement honor from the National Book Awards.
I myself, in these very pages, have whined and complained more than once at feeling disappointed by Stephen King.
Today, though, all I can say is bravo to Mr. King. You keep finding new ways to entertain us, and yes, to make us think - about how the world continues to abide such cruelties, for some horrible, inane reason, and about the truly frightening aspects of aging, of losing friends and loved ones to death and, inevitably, contemplating the undeniable truth of our own eventual demise.
I guess the best thing I could say to any author is this, and I hope you’ll agree, Mr. King, that’s it’s a fine compliment:
You have deprived me, sir, of so many good nights’ sleep.
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