Palimpsest  

Go Back   Palimpsest > Reviews > Book Reviews


Tags
horror, stephen king

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 5th Aug 2005, 15:58   #1
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Stephen King and horror fiction

...or, Palimpsest Gets Popular. And writers don't come much more popular than Stephen King. Why, he's had more books adapted for the stage and screen than William Shakespeare. I've never been tempted to try him before, mainly because of his reputation as a horror hack, but also from his occasional snippy public proclamations, like when he argued that more critical attention should be paid to popular writers ... just because they're popular. Go tell it to your accountant, Stephen. And he's oddly defensive in the midst of self-satisfaction when he writes about being warned by his agent early in his career that he would get 'typed' as a horror writer:

Quote:
And I decided ... that I could be in worse company. I could, for example, be an 'important' writer like Joseph Heller and publish a novel every seven years or so, or a 'brilliant' writer like John Gardner and write obscure books for bright academics who eat macrobiotic foods and drive old Saabs with faded but still legible GENE McCARTHY FOR PRESIDENT stickers on the rear bumpers.
Chill, Stevie! So Heller is 'worse company' because he takes so long to write his books? Or bright academics aren't supposed to be catered for? These comments by him, it's worth noting, aren't in response to criticism from these writers, or others, but unsolicited salvos from King that show more how he feels about his own writing than how others feel about it.

Anyway. At the same time one shouldn't ignore a writer just because they're popular, of course, so I asked about and was told that a good place to start with King was his collection of stories (novellas, really, ranging from 70 to 200 pages) Different Seasons (1982). It's mostly non-horror, none of the stories is as long as one of his usual behemoth novels, and there is a high adaptation rate, with three of the stories becoming films, the first the frequently poll-top-tenning The Shawshank Redemption.

And I have just finished reading the story it's based on, entitled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. This is a good time to swipe at King's cloth ear for a title. You what? His book titles aren't much better, ranging from the merely pedestrian (Misery, The Shining, or the hilarious names-beginning-with-C series of Christine, Carrie and Cujo) to the downright abominable (Gerald's Game, The Tommyknockers, Everything's Eventual, From a Buick 8). This does not bode well for a reader who thinks a good title is not necessarily essential, but certainly heavily important to the overall satisfaction of a good book. And it reflects on the author's ear for words generally.

I suspect King's greatest fans would not claim he has a good way with prose. Indeed, King himself in more conciliatory mode accepts it:

Quote:
[M]y stuff ... is fairly plain, not very literary, and sometimes (though it hurts like hell to admit it) downright clumsy. To some degree or other, I would guess that those very qualities - unadmirable though they may be - have been responsible for the success of my novels. Most of them have been plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and large fries from McDonald's. I am able to recognise elegant prose and to respond to it, but have found it difficult or impossible to write it myself.
This quote, and that above, by the way, are both from the Afterword to Different Seasons, which may well be the most interesting thing in the book. Certainly Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is not very interesting. I haven't seen the film, which I know a lot of people rate highly, so don't be offended: it's probably entirely different. The best I can say about the story though (and the publishers can have this for the back of the next edition if they like, crediting it to A Literary Fusspot), is that it wasn't painful, and I can think of worse ways to spend your time (like watching Big Brother).

Needless to say, the prose never rises above pedestrian. Although it's written in a first person narrative, there's little character to it, and no style at all. Occasionally King strains for effect - "time drew out like a blade" (no it didn't) - but mainly the problem with 'bad prose' like this isn't a lack of clever metaphors or poetic words, but just too much slush. King can't shut up. "Let me tell you a little about solitary confinement" he says - OK then, a little, not two solid pages. The story itself should be half the length it is, if you get rid of all the extraneous detail and water-treading blah. Under the prose, then, is there a good story trying to get out? Well, not really: the main spring of the story was completely obvious to me as soon as Red mentioned the large Rita Hayworth poster than Andy Dufresne wanted him to get for his cell wall. And sure enough, it happens, presented baldly in a separated-out paragraph as if we're meant to be surprised. But King, or Red, doesn't end there, and drags the thing beyond all consciousness, to a couple further ending-ettes, which clear away any possible ambiguity - I was willing him, when he went to look for the black stone, to find it undisturbed, to give us a little bleakness - and leave the story festering in sickly sentimental Hollywood optimism (no wonder it was optioned for the screen).

This doesn't take account of the other problems with the story: Red tries to persuade us on page 2 that he killed his wife because of all the hatred that had built up from his being under the thumb of her bullying father - but on page 1 he has already told us that he did it for the insurance policy he took out in her name. If a more careful writer did this, I would presume it was an indicator that our narrator was not to be trusted: but I don't think King meant it that way, so it's just carelessness, in which case we're meant to believe everything Red tells us, with nothing to put in for ourselves.

So that's the first hundred-pager. Crimecat said this book was reputed to contain two of the finest American short stories of the 20th century - though I don't know if that was cc's own view or just passing on that of others. Was Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption one of the two, crimecat? And - everyone now - should I bother reading on, to Apt Pupil, The Body (filmed as Stand By Me) and The Breathing Method? Do we have any King fans in the house?
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 5th Aug 2005, 16:15   #2
HP
Senior Palimpsester
suckles at the teat of the Palim-God
 
Join Date: 2 Dec 2004
Posts: 2,929
Default

Well, like m. and one or two other Palimpsters, I was an erstwhile fan - albeit of many moons ago, it must be said. But if my creaky, leaky memory is right, I certainly wouldn't for one moment ever credit him with being able to write stuff the equal of anything produced by Yates or Carver. But damn it - you've got me curious, John. So I guess it's about time I revisited the chap to see what I make of him now. Back soonish .....
HP is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 7th Aug 2005, 22:28   #3
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default

I had a read of the first third (70 pages) of Apt Pupil, the second story in Different Seasons. Now just one cotton-pickin' minute here, Mr King - 200+ pages makes it a novel, hokay? It's actually a lot more interesting than Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, concerning a thirteen-year-old boy who discovers that a local codger is a Nazi war criminal and blackmails the old man into telling him all the gruesome details of the death camps. It was pretty obvious what was going to happen - the kid gets to be as evil in his own way as the old boy was - and indeed this transformation had already taken place by the time I gave up, and flicking ahead, I could see the rest of the book was just a ratcheting up of scale. Again, though, the writing is just all ho-hum and no wahay. To come to this off the back of John Banville:

Quote:
Originally Posted by John Banville
a drop of sunlight seethed in a glass paperweight
Quote:
Originally Posted by and also
What a noble sky, this evening, pale blue to cobalt to rich purple, and the great bergs of cloud, colour of dirty ice, with soft copper edgings, progressing from east to west, distant, stately, soundless
is the very definition of bathos. Sorry, Stephen, I have better things to do with my time. Shame really, as the next 'story' The Body is one of the ones (according to those in the know at The Book Forum) said to be one of his finest half-hours. Or three-and-a-half hours.
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 8th Aug 2005, 11:43   #4
HP
Senior Palimpsester
suckles at the teat of the Palim-God
 
Join Date: 2 Dec 2004
Posts: 2,929
Default

Well, in the name of research and the desire to see if my maintaining Stephen King can spin a yarn or two in page-turning style held true or not, I've just read half of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Was hoping dearly that I could report back that JS is talking through his cocked hat and that the horror maestro's talent is alive and well and still capable of kicking up a storm. Sadly, I can't. In fairness to the bloke, he doesn't ponce about like some of the other airport thriller type scribblers, with purple, flowery prose or faux erudition. Nor does he mess about beefing up his yarns with superfluous flab, preferring instead to simply get on and tell his tale in plain words and with an admirable directness. And yes - I did find it darn easy to turn those pages, though I can't say I much enjoyed doing so. King is evidence, if evidence is needed, that we do indeed 'move on'. I couldn't even say I would read him now as a spot of light relief from the wordy excesses of, say, Updike. Because (a) the more I read of Updike the more I am hopelessly smitten - the man is in a league of his own - and (b) having supped from finer cups, for me at least, there is no kick to be found in revisiting inferior brews. I hate to say this, but I really do think that if fine writing is your thing, then once you discover the likes of Updike, Nabokov and Yates, everything else pales by comparison.

As a by-the-by, one of my sons bought me King's On Writing, a medley of memoirs and thoughts on the art of scribbling. In King's defence, it is patently clear that he takes his craft very seriously indeed and is quite, quite passionate about it. And for that, I think you must admire him. Unlike the odious Dan Brown and Dean Koontz (Christ! There's a name to shrivel your fundamentals!) - King is not a sod-the-suckers-just-count-the-bucks merchant, as is so often stated, but a man who gets his kicks spinning yarns - however plain and inelegantly written. His style reminds me of a red-neck hillbilly sitting round a campfire weaving yarns in a folksy, chatty, whisky-and-baccy phlegmy rasp to entertain the other campers. And at times, especially in some of his classic page-turners (The Shining, Misery, Carrie, Salem's Lot) the writing does convey a genuine rough-shod brand of charm. Or, at least, that's the way I remember it. But that said, his dogmatic rules for how to write are typically excessive and best ignored. For example, he insists would be novelists should be churning out 2-3k words a day minimum. Well any fool can churn, but since when was churning a substitute for quality, well-thought out wordsmithing? But as I say, this all very by-the-by. Let's just say in summary, that I think m. was absolutely spot on, when she wisely said he was best remembered for the pleasure he used to give. And sometimes, it really is a mistake to go back. Yes, in King's case, I'm afraid, was is most emphatically, definitely, definitively - was. Pity.
HP is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 8th Aug 2005, 12:57   #5
m.
Palimpsestarian
eats too much cheese
 
m.'s Avatar
 
Join Date: 22 Nov 2003
Location: Poland
Posts: 1,300
Default

:D Totally agree Honey... You summed it up, but still I'll post what I wrote before seeing your post, which is:

I don't have much to add to what I said in the confessional thread... I'm quite loyal to the past loves and likes even if I know I couldn't enjoy them the same way now. I believe there is some quality in King's books because even in the old days I always put him above Masterton or (ugh!!) Koontz...

One thing I remember from Danse Macabre (King's book about horror genre) is that horror stories deal with very everyday fears and concerns but in a symbolical form. For example, the stories about haunted houses reflect people's feelings and uncertainties about buying houses, mortgage etc. I think it may be that, that King is very good in identifying those fears and when he touches it in his books it resonates with many people... Frankly, I think I always liked more the premises of his books than the resolution. The gore part rather tended to tire me, but of course I wanted to know how it all ended...

O - thanks to amazon "search inside" device I found some interesting (I think) quotes in Danse Macabre

Quote:
Originally Posted by King
If there is any truth or worth to the danse macabre, it is simply that novels, movies, TV and radio programs - even the comic books - dealing with horror always do their work on two levels.

On top is the "gross-out' level - when Regan vomits in the priest's face or masturbates with a crucifix in The Exorcist (...)

But on another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance - a moving, rhythmic search. And what it's looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives. Such a work dances through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing - we hope! - our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character. It is in search of another place, a rooom which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentleman, sometimes the torture chamber of of the Spanish Inquisition... but perhaps most frequently and most succesfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave-dweller.

Is horror art? On this second level, the work of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking for something beyond art, something that predates art: it is looking for what I would call phobic pressure points.(...)

Because books and movies are mass media, the field of horror has often been able to do better than even these personal fears over the last thirty years. During that period (and to a lesser degree, in the seventy or so years preceding), the horror genre has often been able to find national phobic pressure points, and those books and films which have been the most successful almost always seem to play upon and express fears which exist across a wide spectrum of people. Such fears, which are often political, economic and psychological rather than supernatural give the best work of horror (...)
I still find it interesting, and for things like that I could read a King some time. But I'm afraid that now I'd be rather a distant observer not a reader immersed in the world of a novel...
m. is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 8th Aug 2005, 13:08   #6
m.
Palimpsestarian
eats too much cheese
 
m.'s Avatar
 
Join Date: 22 Nov 2003
Location: Poland
Posts: 1,300
Default

Only now I realised that I "totally agreed" with HP agreeing with me, which is slightly awkward...
m. is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 8th Aug 2005, 13:49   #7
gil
Senior Palimpsester
has the freedom of Palimp City
 
gil's Avatar
 
Join Date: 21 May 2003
Location: Farnham, UK
Posts: 3,287
Default

One of King's lesser-known books, under the pseudonym Richard Bach, was Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was an account of the delight of flying, a children's book, really.

And as if by magic, here it is. (Possibly a bootleg copy)

It was a great favourite with my children at the time, I remember.
gil is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 8th Aug 2005, 14:07   #8
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default

Is it my Monday sluggishness, gil, or are you wickedly conflating Bach and Bachman? Or would King really be responsible for sickly affirmative fable-making?
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 8th Aug 2005, 14:51   #9
gil
Senior Palimpsester
has the freedom of Palimp City
 
gil's Avatar
 
Join Date: 21 May 2003
Location: Farnham, UK
Posts: 3,287
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by John Self
Is it my Monday sluggishness, gil, or are you wickedly conflating Bach and Bachman? Or would King really be responsible for sickly affirmative fable-making?
Wickedly conflating? No. I have just had revealed unto me that I have for years laboured under the delusion that Richard Bach was a pseudonym of Stephen King.

Sorry, everyone. Shall I delete the offending post, or leave it as a permanent memento to my frailty?
gil is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 8th Aug 2005, 15:00   #10
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default

A permanent memento etc. No, I thought you were being mischievous! Richard Bachman is King; Richard Bach is not.
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Reply


Currently Active Users Viewing This Thread: 1 (0 members and 1 guests)
 
Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT +1. The time now is 6:27.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2017, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.