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A Novel Idea - Stephen King
Something Happened On The Graveyard Shift
In this article, I will be taking a departure from my usual subject matter to talk about something else I truly enjoy: books. I love to read, and one of my favorite topics to read about, is horror. Those stories that put frightening images in our heads that kept us awake at night as children, or the truly scary ones that can manage to do so even in adulthood. We tell abridged versions around camp fires and at social gatherings and if they happen to be made into a film we go to critique them, often finding that nothing put to screen could ever be as frightening as the images we put into our own heads while reading the stories. And when the topic turns to horror authors, there is one name that has become virtually synonymous with the genre: Stephen King.
Ever since the release of his first novel, the almost universally revered "Carrie", Stephen King has become the go to man for all things dark and terrifying in literature. His tales of scary goings on in the world have covered stories of otherworldly and supernatural beings that prey upon our deepest fears, to things we usually see as completely innocuous becoming murderous terrors, to our fellow man becoming the embodiment of evil, combined with the prolific nature of his publishing, have made him one of the most well known authors alive today. Almost everyone has a story of his that they can name right off the bat that has stuck with them for the rest of their lives as soon as they finished the last page.
Even his ventures outside of horror have had great success and served as a credit to his abilities as a writer. One of his most revered and most well known works, "The Shawshank Redemption", is for the most part a straight forward character driven prison story. There is no presence of ghosts or monsters or really anything supernatural, there really isn't even an instance of psychosis at least not in the sense one would normally associate with his work. There are certainly some incredibly disturbing instances and in the film version at least the warden is a character that has managed to make me hate him more than really any other fictional character I can think of.
But with all this talent and notoriety, there are some things that do distract from his brilliance and he certainly does have his fair share of less than brilliant stories, many of which have had the grave misfortune of being put to film. "Maximum Overdrive", for example, a story about trucks coming to life and going on a murdering spree, did actually work as a short story he wrote in his early days, as a film however, it's just silly. "The Langoliers" is another example of a concept I found to be very interesting and quite frightening, the film however did less to inspire fear as much as inspire many a fit of laughter.
There are three main problems that have permeated King's lesser works and even some of his better ones that I have been able to identify. First of all, poor build up. Once his stories get going, it is impossible to put the book down. Up to that point however, in most of the books I've read of his, the first few chapters, sometimes even first half of the book, is just a long tedious drawn out ordeal that while serving it's purpose of introducing the characters, still feels like there is a multitude of details and events that could have been left out with little to no consequence to the story.
Second: Poor pay offs. Some other of King's stories have the opposite problem. Remarkably gripping and enticing build up followed by a rather disappointing pay off. The best example I can give of this is "It". The idea of a monster preying on childhood fears in order to feed on them to me is a brilliant idea. When we find out the monster's true identity however, it really does not live up to that hype. To me, something like some shapeless evil that takes form in the presence of fear would have been a much more satisfying payoff than something that looks less scary than a badly cooked sea food dish.
Third and possibly most glaring: The repetition of characters and events that are repeated, whether they are good or bad, seemingly throughout all of King's less revered stories and even some of his very well known ones. They occur so often that one of my favorite internet personalities, "The Nostalgia Critic", even made a drinking game out of them that is sure to cause massive inebriation. Things like rednecks, the origins of the monster not being explained, bullies who are so evil seemingly for no reason, abusive spouses, alcoholics, Maine, etc., are more often than not sure to be found running around somewhere in the pages of the story.
That being said, part of what has made King such a renowned author are the instances where not only do the instances not interfere with the story, sometimes they actually improve it. What I would now like to look at are three of his works that I feel best exemplify instances where he either avoided these trappings, had a story so good it completely bi-passed any issues that could have arisen from them, or used them in such a way that the story was improved. I should note that I am only going from books of his that I have actually read. There are some that while I greatly enjoyed them, I have sadly only seen the film adaptations, like "The Shawshank Redemption". It's one of my favorite films, but I have not read the book, so it is not on the list.
Another one of King's most revered stories, it is also one of the most successful and critically acclaimed film adaptations of his works and one of the best vampire stories I have ever read. Many of the stereotypes we have come to expect from his work is present throughout the novel, but in this case they are not glaring enough to interfere with said story, and sometimes even work to further an element of the story. There are rednecks and alcoholics, many of which we really did not need to spend so much time on (the man who runs the dumpster and shoots rats for fun for example. All we needed to know about him could have been summed up in one page), but it does not get in the way of anything. The build up while initially rather boring, does actually come back when we see the devastation that is being afflicted on the town. Giving us a picture of the town and it's people in such great detail makes the ghost town it becomes later even more harrowing.
Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
The first of the "Dark Tower" series, this is an example of a story in which virtually all of the themes mentioned before are altogether not present. Given that it takes place, upon initial reading of it, in a world very similar yet much different from our own, there really isn't place for such things as rednecks in the traditional sense or Maine. The things such as some slightly promiscuous women and other things that are present in his other works, don't feel like they're in a Stephen King story, and as such they can't really be things we're tired of seeing. There is little explanation of what is going on, how the characters got to where they are, the creatures of this world and such, but even without knowing that it is a series, you do feel as though it is building up to something much bigger.
You may call this slightly a cheat, but I really think everything good about Stephen King is perfectly displayed in this collection. A compilation of his short stories sent in to various publications, and couple that until this release had been unpublished, the trappings of having a long drawn out boring introduction or needing to flesh out characters we don't really feel need fleshing out (or skipping over characters we would like to see fleshed out) are done away with. The stories in this collection get right to the intrigue, give us enough information to be as informed as we need to be and as invested in the characters as we need to be, and the mysteries that are left for the most part only add to the terrifying nature of the story, or leave us wanting more instead of leaving us completely and utterly confused. While there are a few slightly seemingly ridiculous stories, they are short so you don't have to worry about them for so long, and even the bad ones are still very memorable.
And So It Concludes
I hope you found this interesting. If there is a story or an author you would like me to talk about, leave it in the comments.