Stephen King – Brilliant Writer or Overrated Hack?
It’s actually quite astounding to realise for how many years the world has been exposed to the writings of Stephen King. King’s foray into writing coupled with his on-going years of success might seem like he was the lucky recipient of an overnight sensation, but that would be far from the truth. The fact of the matter is that King started writing in his youth, pursued an education that facilitated it and lectured to make ends meet while continuing to write. In other words, King had a genuine commitment to writing and if there’s one thing this writer knows, it’s that real consistency bares results. In fact, I would go as far to say that consistency can trump talent.
Talent is but one quality of a much bigger equation whose strength can be undone by hard work and the constant application thereof. This train of thought also forces out another question – is Stephen King a good writer? About that, I am not too sure. I have read his work and while I have enjoyed it mostly, I have often felt bogged down by the immense attention to detail. Brilliant natural dialogue aside, something King seems to truly understand, the peripherals, while essential, have often in my opinion gone way, way beyond what is needed. However, money does talk and it sure isn’t my name appearing on the cover of many best-sellers. With Doctor Sleep (the sequel to The Shining) about to be released, let us examine what has been deemed the top 10 list of the best Stephen King novels. If you’re reading this on your smartphone while sitting in a smoky gaming casino lounge, order another drink.
1. The Stand
Originally published in 1978, one year after The Shining, The Stand, before being heavily edited, numbered a total of 1200 pages and weighed an incredible 12 pounds! Not only was the story a complete sprawl, but King’s publisher at the time, Doubleday, literally didn’t possess the technology to piece a book of that size together. Think about it – book technology had not caught up with King’s ambition! To remedy the matter, his editor suggested a cut of 400 pages to make the book commercially viable. At 823 pages, The Stand shipped 65 000 copies and then some more in 1990 when King updated it and restored the missing pages.
When King wrote IT and published it in 1986, he was deep in the midst of alcohol and drug addiction. In fact, he had penned a few best-sellers under the influence and while IT is King’s answer to the horror genre, the fever-pitch writing and the outlandish ideas can only be born from a brain high on coke. King would eventually beat the monkey off his back and embrace sobriety. IT is a long book. At 1138 pages, IT will take you aeons to read and even if you opt for the audible version read by Steven Weber (who starred in the 1997 TV adaptation of The Shining), you’re still in for 44 hours of listening! Moreover, IT has some shifty subject matter by today’s standards, including a vicious homophobic attack that made it into 2019’s IT: Chapter 2.
3. The Shining
The year was 1977 and King had already struck gold with Carrie, but if there was a book that really placed his name on the map, then it was The Shining. We also have Stanley Kubrick to thank, who adapted King’s novel into what many consider one of the best horror movies of all time. This writer disagrees; I read The Shining and like many who read the book first, can honestly say that the film differs tremendously from the source material. King was unhappy with all the liberties that Kubrick took and so much so that he wrote the screenplay for the 1997 television movie which follows the book closely. All this aside, The Shining is a good book and at just over 400 pages, is perfect for those not seeking to spend ages reading.
4. Salem’s Lot
As a horror aficionado, King was fascinated by the vampire genre, and with 1975’s Salem Lot, decided to pay homage to it. King didn’t want his vampires to be noble creatures or lost romantics. Instead, he took his inspiration from the old EC Comics who’s vampires were gaunt, pale and ugly and who’s fangs would rip into the flesh of their victims. Salem’s Lot is a good read, and even though it deals with the subject of vampires, King injects it with horror by always taking the matter seriously. Well-fleshed out characters and what can only be described as a bleak ending all combine to make Salem’s Lot scary and memorable even after all these years.
Misery will continue to occupy a place in the mind of the public thanks to an academy-award winning performance from Cathy Bates who along with the always-reliable James Caan, made the 1990 film adaptation a real winner. The book was published in 1987 and this time instead of aliens or a werewolf, the horror was a woman, and not just any woman, but a fan of the protagonist writer. King clearly nurtured the idea of celebrities and their fans – something he had first-hand experience with. In 2015, a stage production starring Bruce Willis of all people as the bed-ridden and trapped Paul Sheldon and Laurie Metcalf as his keeper, Annie Wilkes, received a lukewarm reception. However, the fact that a play with the once very popular Bruce Wills was produced says a lot about the book’s appeal.
6. The Dark Tower Series
King’s magnum opus consisting of eight novels and a total of 4250 pages is The Dark Tower Series. Many deem this his best work and from what this writer can tell, King decided to throw everything but the kitchen sink at this one by blending the genres of dark fantasy, science fantasy, horror and western. If it sounds ridiculous, then only one guy can make it work and that’s Stephen King. Like many of King’s novels, The Dark Tower has been adapted for the big screen, although the eventual product was a major let down and saw great actors like Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey phoning it from a beach while sipping on a cold one.
King’s big break came in the form of Carrie, published in 1974, and largely thanks to his wife. King tossed the first three pages into the trash after which his wife, Tabitha, fished it out and encouraged him to finish the story. King endured and finished Carrie while his wife worked in a donut shop, he taught, and they lived in a trailer. King was so broke he disconnected his telephone and when his publisher eventually notified him of a $2 500 advance, he did it by telegram. Afterwards the rights got picked up for $400 000, the hard cover sold 13 000 copies and the paperback over a million. The book was adapted into a movie in 1976, directed by Brian De Palma with the leads – Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie – both receiving Academy Award nominations. The rest is history.
King’s foray into time travelling sees the protagonist trying to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy only to find that the world might be worse off. King’s interesting take on time travel and times lines and multiple “time strings” certainly does make one think quite a bit. This book’s premise was intriguing enough for a series to be produced by J.J. Abrams, starring James Franco and released to good reviews in 2016.
9. The Green Mile
Like the Shawshank Redemption before it, The Green Mile presented director Frank Darabont with yet another opportunity to make a compelling and touching movie that would tug at the heartstrings of its viewers. While both stories are prison stories, only the Green Mile deals in fantasy. The Green Mile was nominated at the British Fantasy Awards for Best Novel and the film adaptation received four Oscar nominations, so you do the math.
10. Pet Sematary
Anyone who knows a thing or two about 1983s Pet Semetary will know that King considers it one of his scariest books. The incorrect spelling in the title has to do with the way children might spell the word ‘cemetery’. Once again, King delves deep into fantasy horror to tell a story of a man who uncovers something evil and powerful and the extent to which he will use this power. I read Pet Sematary a few years ago and can honestly say that this book is scary. It’s not as scary as it is just mean-spirited though, which is why King considered not publishing it in the first place.