My first exposure to Stephen King was in the late 1970s. I was living in Germany and a friend shoved The Stand in my hands and exclaimed, “You have got to read this! Read it ASAP! Hurry. Don’t do anything else until you read this book.”
I was quite frankly, blown away. I became a King fan. I think he was my very first Must-Buy author. I didn’t bother waiting for his books to come out in paperback. I had to have the hardcovers the minute they hit the bookstore. He grossed me out, he scared me, he made me laugh, he gave me a romping good story. Some of his short stories gave me nightmares. I met a lot of King fans and the books gave us plenty of opportunity for discussion and argument with everyone defending their choice of favorite (My faves: The Shining and The Dead Zone, and a special fondness for Firestarter for reasons I’ve never been able to adequately define) I turned a lot of people on to King, especially boys. The first grown-up novel I induced my son to read was Christine. It got him hooked on books.
I felt less than enthusiastic about Cujo and Pet Sematary and The Tommyknockers. All of which struck me as merely so-so books. The books felt tired somehow. Grim. They left a bad aftertaste. After reading, Misery, my first thought after I finished the book was, “Wow, he really doesn’t like his fans, does he?”
King kind of fell off my radar after that. If I found his work in the library or in a used book store, I’d pick it up just to see if the old magic was back. I discovered the Bachman books, which were full of that maniacal glee that marked his early works. I hoped he would write more, but he didn’t. I tried the Dark Tower books, but they weren’t to my taste. I kept reading him, I suppose because I hoped to recapture the old magic, but even the brilliant Dolores Claiborne didn’t charge me up enough to discuss it with friends on anything other than an academic level. It reached the point where his books kept ending up on the DNF (did not finish) pile, and I gave up on King altogether.
But hey, no biggie, right? Tastes change. People change. I can’t imagine King gives a shit whether I’m a fan or not. I’m probably one of the fans he so despised when he wrote Misery.
This week I noticed his collection of novellas, Full Dark, No Stars, at the library. I don’t know, maybe it’s that sweet spot of hope you always feel about first loves. The one that nudges: Hey, maybe this time it will work out. I checked out the book. I read it. I won’t say they are bad stories. Because they are not. Craftwise, they’re brilliant. Story-wise, though, they’re bleak. They’re about bad people doing bad things and good people doing bad things. There are no heroes, there is no love or sacrifice, or even a showdown between good and evil. There is no humor, no bright spots or hope.
In the afterword, King explains that he writes about Truth. Yeah, well, it’s the truth of the bitter and disappointed. I guess it’s all the more disturbing because I honestly don’t know what King has to be disappointed about or why he comes off as such a mean, ungracious bastard. From where I sit, he’s been blessed. He has an amazing talent, and the guts and gumption to develop a work ethic that makes a beehive look like it’s filled with slackers. His legacy is a body of work that has earned him critical acclaim and popular success. Even non-readers know who Stephen King is.
The picture I used to hold in my head of King was of him sitting at his typewriter, grinning, occasionally laughing like a loon, saying, “Oh yeah, baby, this is going to make them wet their panties!” I imagined a joyful man who loved leading readers down twisted paths, telling them jokes, setting them up, scaring the piss out of them and then afterward, shaking hands, saying, “Oh, yeah, that was a hell of a ride, wasn’t it?”
In the afterword to Full Dark, No Stars, he writes:
“But Steve, you say, you’ve made a great many pennies during your career, and as for truth… that’s variable, isn’t it? Yes, I’ve made a good amount of money writing my stories, but the money was a side effect, never the goal. Writing fiction for money is a mug’s game. And sure, truth is in the eye of beholder. But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it is the writer’s truth– as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold out his or her hat to Fashion– all is well.”
My image of King these days is much different. I see a bitter, angry man, hunched in semi-darkness, punching out stories full of TRUTH, terrified nobody is going to get the TRUTH, hating all the knuckleheads, barbarians and Philistines too damned stupid to get the TRUTH.
I’m going to disagree with King about writing for money. How else can a reader show appreciation for a writer’s efforts except with money? If readers don’t buy, publishers have no reason to publish, and then what’s the point? I don’t believe King anyway. He doesn’t give his work away for free. He never has. Or maybe that’s what he really wants, to be alone, unread, disconnected and yet somehow secure that he serves some Higher Cause. If the only TRUTH he cares about is his own, then he’s talking to himself and who cares about the rest of us?
But enough of that. I’m not going to presume to know what King thinks or even speculate further on his attitude. It’s just my impression. What I can state with full assurance is that for me, Stephen King is no longer fun to read. While I admire his craft, his care with language, the images he creates, his stories leave me uneasy, but not in a good way. If this is the TRUTH in King’s heart, it’s so sour, bitter, bleak and depressing, I want no part of it. It’s as if he’s forgotten fiction is a two-way street, that the reader’s impression completes the circuit. Instead of enticing me into his story world, he’s telling me to sit down and shut up because he knows better than me.
I can imagine college professors forcing students to read these stories for the craft and because sure truth so dark and grim must be important (Read for fun? Only the idiotic unwashed masses read for fun!) What I can’t imagine is anybody, wide-eyed and excited, shoving these into a friend’s hands and saying, “Oh my God! You have got to read this right now!”