Stephen King has written one novel of pure horror genius, three novels of almost genius, and a whole lot of crap. The one genius novel? Salem’s Lot, followed by The Stand, Dead Zone, and Misery. The Shining was a near miss. The rest you know.
Salem’s Lot remains the best modern adaptation of the vampire tale since Dracula because it’s one of those rare recent vampire stories that actually has a vampire, monster of legend and nightmare, a terrifying relentless demon that generates a bit of sympathy but is evil and implacable and cannot be saved. Not a sparkly vampire, not a postmodern or progressive or romantically misunderstood pseudo-pubescent angst-ridden boy band member or a sexy power grrl striking fangs against the patriarchy and please, find me a bucket so I can throw up now. Vampires are bad. And not in the cool ‘bad’ sense, they’re bad like the coronavirus.
I read Salem’s Lot in one afternoon after pulling it off a friend’s bookshelf and refusing to go home until I finished it. I hadn’t read this good a horror novel since I Am Legend, another vampire-themed book, and this King guy, whoever he is, gets it. He knows horror, that overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of something out of kin, like a hate-filled murderous monster ten times stronger than you that shrugs off bullets like they were thrown marshmallows. Unless they’re dipped in holy water. The bullets I mean. Although I guess holy water-soaked marshmallows might give ‘im pause.
Shortly after, I ran across The Stand, shortly after seeing Carrie, and I was convinced this King guy gets it, although…there was something a bit off about both. Carrie was a damn good movie, but a movie is a movie and a book a book and the twain rarely meet and I did not realize the differences until I read the book some years later. Gotta say, the movie was better although the book was pretty good, just not genius and it had those nascent elements of grossness that have come to dominate most of King’s other novels. The Stand was great, almost genius, but something’s a bit off. The ‘good vs evil” theme felt like a plot device employed by someone who didn’t really believe in good and evil, at least, the God and Satatn type. Still, damn good book.
Another damn good book: The Dead Zone. I do not know why this book and the subsequent movie don’t get more love. It was a fast paced thriller and yeah, okay, maybe the eeevil politician was a bit over the top, but that’s not the point: it’s King’s version of the Great Man theory, you know, that history will provide the right person at the right moment. Here, a flawed and fractured man willingly sacrifices himself to stop a nuclear apocalypse. Near genius. And c’mon, Christopher Walken? What’s not to like?
Then The Shining.
Everyone makes the mistake of conflating “Here’s Johnny!” with the novel, and no, book is book and movie is movie and Jack Nicholson is not in the book. You know who’s in the book? A five-year old kid with the sensibilities of a thirty year old and far too much maturity to be believable and has this gift, this shining, and I was stopped. Cold. No five-year-old is going to act like this. They’re just not. Yeah, I know, lots of people think this is one of King’s masterpieces but I think it is the beginning of his end.
Because look what followed: Cujo; Pet Sematary; Thinner, and then that dreadful Peter Straub co-operation, The Talisman. The Tommyknockers. Dreamcatcher.
Oh good Lord.
Oh. Good. Lord.
I saw It Part 1 and had the same reaction to the movie as I did from the first part of the novel: man, this is GOOD! King is back!! Then I read the second part of the novel and…what. The. HELL?? This is why I haven’t seen It Part 2. Don’t want to have the same reaction.
Somewhere in all of this, I saw Misery and was quite impressed and so I read the book and was quite impressed and thought, finally, King’s back to writing again because Misery was pert near genius: horror without the supernatural, which is the best horror of all. Is King back?
Misery is a glaring exception to the dreck that King churned out during this time period. Dreck. Yes, that’s what it is. Looks to me like King succumbed to his own success, turning into a book factory assured that everyone would buy anything he wrote because he is Stephen King and everything he writes must be good and must be horror and no, it’s not. Gross is not horror. Ick is not scary. It is revolting, and is much easier to write than actual pulse pounding horror. The looks and smells of a corpse takes about a paragraph to describe, three or four paragraphs if you’re getting paid by the word. Describing the evil spirit or beast animating that corpse takes a bit more effort. And when you’ve got deadlines and lunches and meetings in New York, then you just phone it in.
This is what happens when a writer forgets his calling and follows Mammon, believing money is the sign of ability and that everything your publicist tells you must be true. You become self-defining, you decide what is good, not readers. Screw the readers. I’m Stephen Freakin’ King!
I mourned the passing of Stephen King. The guy who wrote Salem’s Lot. The guy who once cared about horror.
And then I picked up the Gunslinger.
Now, I am not read up on the whole Dark Tower saga, what novel or novella was first or last and in what order which part of what story is supposed to go, but there’s another movie out, surprise surprise, and I spotted this paperback Tor-lookin’ little novel with a comic book cover and the movie looks interesting so what the hell, picked it up.
And was impressed. Greatly.
The first part of the story made no sense and I was rolling my eyes so far back in my head because, oh my God, it’s Randall Flagg in another guise and then I got to that marvelous middle section with the falcon and said, my God, King is back.
Or, maybe, he never left. Is a voice crying in the wilderness. Hoping we’ll hear him.
This way, Steve, we’re over here.