|Stephen J. Spignesi|
Books On King|
The Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia (1990), The Stephen King Quiz Book (1990), The Second Stephen King Quiz Book (1992), The Lost Work of Stephen King (1998), The Essential Stephen King (2001)
Other Books of Note
Mayberry, My Hometown (1987), The Woody Allen Companion (1992), J.F.K. Jr. (1997), The Italian 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Cultural, Scientific, and Political Figures, Past and Present (1997), The Complete Titanic: From the Ship's Earliest Blueprints to the Epic Film (1999), Here, There and Everywhere: The 100 Best Beatles Songs (2004), Dialogues: A Novel of Suspense (2005), The Third Act of Life (2009)
Stephen Spignesi is one of the premier experts in the field of Stephen King. His book, The Shape Under the Sheet: The Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia, remains one of the definitive texts on King, and still currently the only encyclopedic reference book. Additionally, Spignesi has contributed other vital works to the field, including The Lost Work of Stephen King, and The Essential Stephen King, not to mention his two Stephen king Quiz Books. One of the most accessible and interesting writers on King today, Spignesi has also published a number of non-King books, including his successful novel, Dialogues.
1. Ten years have passed since your book, The Essential Stephen King, has been published. In the interim, King has published over a dozen new books, several dozen short stories, a surprising amount of poetry, and he finished the Dark Tower series. How would the newer stuff fit into the rankings of the Best of King? Are there plans for a revised and expanded volume, encompassing his new work? Also, have you reconsidered any pre-existing rankings? Not including "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" in your top 100 seems an especially grievous oversight.
First of all, regarding "Bullet": Believe it or not, I was never a fan of "Flexible Bullet," but I went back to it prior to answering this question out of respect for your praise for it. I wanted to see if my initial judgement was flawed and if, perhaps, I missed something. My decade-later reassessment confirms my initial view that it's not a very good story, but now that I've been teaching English Composition and Literature at the university level for the past five years, and have been revisiting tropes and rules for writing on a daily basis, I can say why, with clarity, I don't think it works. There are two reasons. First, it's overlong. (It goes on forever!) And second (and perhaps this should be first), it violates the single most important rule of writing fiction: "Show, don't tell." The story is page after page of "telling." It's relentless, and it gets tedious. In my opinion, having someone narrate a psychologically intense, fantastical story that spans years is not a very good approach to telling the story. Why King chose the hoary device of the "sitting around a campfire" method of telling the story is known to him alone, but I think it would have been much more effective if everything that went on in the story was shown instead of talked about. Is it a top 100 SK work? Perhaps, in retrospect, I could have squeezed it in by dropping something else that's also borderline, but part of it is that I never liked the story, so that subjective view of it also factored into my decision to leave it off.
As for Essential Stephen King, the whole book would have to be reworked if I did a new edition. I'm a purist and if I'm going to talk about the essential works of Stephen King, and the field of viable works has expanded as significantly as it has over the past decade, I would literally have to start over. I'd first compile the new master list of all of King's works, and then revisit the entire ranking. As you can imagine, this would be a huge amount of work, and so it's been placed offstage for now, although I absolutely would like to do a new edition of the book one day. Duma Key, Lisey's Story, Under the Dome, Cell, etc. are important works that would definitely qualify for top 100 ranking ... not to mention the new nonfiction, poetry, online stuff, etc.; but then what gets dropped? I'm getting tired just thinking about it.
2. The last time we spoke, you had announced tentative plans to unite your two Stephen King Quiz Books into one, and add new trivia challenges reflecting newer work. Is that still in the works?
No, the Complete Stephen King Quiz Book is probably not going to happen, primarily for the same reason as I haven't done a new Essential: it's very difficult keeping up with King's output and to write new quizzes for everything that's come out since the second volume of the quiz book would take time I don't have these days. But who knows? A comprehensive Stephen King IQ Test could very well appear one day.
3. Your book, The Lost Work of Stephen King, is a definitive text on King's uncollected and unpublished work. Fortunately, due to the nature of King's publication, some of it is now inaccurate. "The Cat From Hell" appeared in Just After Sunset, Blaze was published as a Bachman book, The Cannibals was reworked as Under the Dome (and several portions of The Cannibals itself were available online), and The Plant expanded on the Internet. What are your feelings on King revisiting some of his older work and publishing or collecting it now? Are there plans to revise Lost Work, as there seems to be a plethora of material not covered in the original volume?
Yes, King, bless his heart, has made some of the lost works covered in the book "un-lost." :) So here's what going to happen: Dave Hinchberger's Overlook Connection Press has commissioned me to do a Lost Work Vol. II, and they also plan on reissuing Lost Work I in a matched edition. I will take this opportunity to revise Lost Work I to reflect the new availability and accessibility of some works that were "lost" when I originally did the book. My comments about the stories will remain, but I will update the chapters to cover the new publication info.
4. Despite the fact that it only covers the first sixteen years of King publication, your Shape Under the Sheet remains the definitive encyclopedic work on Stephen King. Ten years ago, you stated that updating such a book would be a massive undertaking, requiring at least two years of solid research and writing. Is that possible yet? More, because of King's massive output in the ensuing years, does an expansion even seem feasible?
I wonder about this very question all the time. I would love nothing better than to do a comprehensive update of the book. I'd have 20 years of texts to research and write entries about, though. I'd have to have the time and money to be able to devote myself to it fulltime. I'm teaching fulltime at two universities now, so who knows how I'd structure this project logistically, but it is a dream of mine to one day do a new edition. Like Marshall Crenshaw said, "Someday, some way." In the meantime, I do have a new King project (in addition to Lost Work II) that we're in talks with publishers about. This book hasn't been done before, so I think it will be well received by fans.
5. Your writing style is almost unique in the world of Stephen King criticism and appreciation - always enthusiastic without ever falling into fanboy gushing. Because your work definitely falls into the realm of appreciation rather than criticism, I've often wondered if there was anything you don't like about the work of Stephen King. Additionally, you have long been a defender of King as a serious artist. I know how exhausting it is to defend King in literary discussions. Is it gratifying that, following King's winning the National Book Award, the mainstream press seems to have accepted him more?
I like almost everything King has done except for some of his screenplays and poetry. I was not a fan of "The Bone Church." I think he is magnificent in the novella and short story form; I feel those are his strongest works. His novels are, for the most part, superb. He's creative, prolific, and a skilled and passionate artist. I teach a course on King now and I assign a bunch of King's works to read, but the novel assigned is always The Shining. My students are always of a post-King generation: they were born around 1990 or so, so they are newcomers to what you and I and other King fans from our generation refer to as Klassic King. They are invariably blown away by The Shining, and this proves to me that King's literary merit is undeniable. It's interesting to me that the students who know and love King have parents who are freaks about his work like us. King's books were in the house when they were growing up, and they ended up reading them. The newcomers may have seen some of his movies, but the books and stories are new to them.
As for the recent elevation of the perception of King as an important and, finally, literary writer, all I can say to the mainstream media and literary critics is, What the hell took you so long?
6. Bonus round: the desert-island question. What five books about Stephen King do you find indispensable, the ones no reader serious about King should live without?
I'm making the assumption that I have the complete King canon on the island already. So, should I include my own stuff? Does that come off as too narcissistic? Perhaps, but I do feel that one "indispensable" book (for me, anyway) would be my Essential Stephen King. After that, I'd want Bev Vincent's Illustrated Stephen King Companion (for the history and rarities - and the fun), Knowing Darkness (my buddy George Beahm's massive art volume); Stan Wiater's The Stephen King Universe, and probably Doug Winter's The Art Of Darkness, because it provides, in one place, a complete literary biography of King up until the time it was written. Runners-up would include Robin Furth's Dark Tower Concordance, Tony Magistrale's The Shining Reader, George's Stephen King Country, and Michael Collings's complete Starmont literary criticism collection (which I choose to conveniently count as one volume. My island, my rules.) :)
1. After reading your two long essays in George Beahm's Sk Collectibles book, I can't tell you how excited I am that you will have a new book on King coming out. Can you give me a little overview about this new project?
Thanks for the kind words, Kev. The new project is called The Essential Stephen King and it is a comprehensive look at King's entire body of work - which now numbers over 600 individual works (can you believe it?). In the book I will go where no man has gone before and attempt to rank King's top 100 works and explain (defend might be a better word) why a piece was placed where it was placed.
2. What makes this news a little shocking is we all expected the long-awaited third SK trivia book to come out. Any updates on that?
Yes, we are currently in talks with a couple of different publishers about The Complete Stephen King Quiz Book, which would combine volumes one and two of my quiz books and add new material updating the book through 2001. We haven't finalized anything yet but I do hope to eventually do the book as a big trade paperback.
3. Your Stephen King Encyclopedia is now seen as one of the standard texts for every serious King fan. Like Douglas Winter's THE ART OF DARKNESS, it has also, sadly, gone out of date. Are there any plans to update this book?
You know what comes to mind whenever I am asked that question, Kev? The line "I am still living with your ghost" from the song "Santa Monica" off Everclear's Sparkle And Fade album. The ghost being, of course, The Shape Under The Sheet. The publication of that book was one of my proudest moments, and yet now, I live with its ghost simply because the creation of the book was a unique concatenation of circumstances in my life; circumstances that allowed me to research and write it, but which I have not since been able to duplicate. I was still working full-time when I decided to tackle the Shape and it took five years of sustained work to get it done. My advance for the book was $1,000. As King has often noted, an advance is meant to tide a writer over until his or her book comes out. I once calculated out the advance relative to the amount of time it took me to write it: 13 cents an hour. But at the time I was working full-time at a well-paying job; my wife was working full-time at a well-paying job, and money was not an issue. Writing the book was an enormous labor of love.
Financially, things are different now. I write for a living now. Updating the book would, of course, still be a labor of love, but no publisher wants to pay me the kind of advance money I would need to abandon all other work for a year, possibly two (or more?) To do the research and writing necessary to update the book from 1990 through 2000. I will promise you this though: When the day comes that I can afford to take those two years off and write the update, I most certainly will. In fact, it is on the top of the list of things I want to do when I can afford it. You know the Barenaked Ladies' song "If I Had a Million Dollars"? Well, if I had a million dollars (speaking figuratively), the first thing I would do is begin work on The Shape Under The Sheet: The Revised & Expanded Edition. In the meantime, I hope that the information about the first 16 years of King's career that the original edition covers is still of some value to King fans.
4. Okay, in this book you're listing the 100 "best" works of Stephen King. This seems a daunting, if not impossible, task. What are your criteria?
It is daunting, but I am using certain benchmark criteria for evaluating and ranking King's work. They are:
But in addition to these basic guidelines, I also factor in whether or not I feel an intangible appeal to the work; something that just makes the work so much fun to read that you can't stop turning pages. This ethereal, indefinable appeal of the "essence" of a work may allow some slack in judging the other elements of the work. And regarding the validity of my rankings, this is, of course, just my opinion, but it is an informed opinion. I have often noted that Roger Ebert's opinion about a film would probably carry more clout than someone who has no knowledge of, or grounding in, film and film history. So I am hoping that my previous work about King and my study of his lifetime body of writing assigns a bit more credibility to my ranking than one by someone who is not as informed. I do have my first-pass top 100 list compiled and now I am rereading selectively and moving things around. I am certain about my top 3 slots ... the rest of the top 100 is still "a livin' thing" that I'm sure will undergo a great many modifications before I say, "This is the final ranking."
5. What gave you the idea to tackle a project like this?
A couple of years ago I did a book called The Italian 100, which was a ranking of the most influential Italians and Italian-Americans in world history (Galileo was number 1; Madonna was number 100). That book was an enormous amount of fun to research and write and it was also a great conversation starter. In a wonderful instance of synchronicity, much the way my Andy Griffth Show encyclopedia, Mayberry, My Hometown, inspired me to write my Stephen King Encyclopedia; so my Italian 100 inspired me to apply the same approach to the work of Stephen King. Plus I wanted to complete a "Stephen King Trilogy" of sorts - three books about King's work that say pretty much all I want to say. The Essential Stephen King and its all-encompassing approach to King's work seemed like the perfect final book of the trilogy, following the Encyclopedia and The Lost Work Of Stephen King.
6. It seems as if the mainstream critics are finally coming around to your point of view, that King is actually an important, literate author. What are your ideas on that? What do you think prompted the change?
I think critics are actually reading King in depth now instead of making judgments about his work based on a pop culture perception of him derived mainly from his public persona and his movies. King's longevity, prolific output, and literary awards, combined with the frequent, increasingly praising reviews from highly-respected fellow writers, seemed to have forced previously dismissive critics to "take a second look." And when they do, they find gold. Anyone who appreciates fine writing simply cannot read something of King's and not see a profound talent at work. Here, read this:
"The house itself looked toward town. It was huge and rambling and sagging, its windows haphazardly boarded shut, giving it that sinister look of all old houses that have been empty for a long time. The paint had been weathered away, giving the house a uniform gray look. Windstorms had ripped many of the shingles off, and a heavy snowfall had punched in the west corner of the main roof, giving it a slumped, hunched look. A tattered, no-trespassing sign was nailed to the right-hand newel post."
This is a passage from 'Salem's Lot and it is as good as anything by Poe or Hawthorne (and better than a lot of contemporary writing that routinely makes the best-seller lists). And this was only King's second published novel. His writing has been of equal caliber, if not better, in the intervening years and in later works. A recent review of Hearts In Atlantis by the respected literary journal January compared King to J. D. Salinger. King has always been better than his critics have given him credit for ... but the critical and popular perception of King - thanks in no small part to the movies - is that of a schlockmeister who only writes about haunted cars, rabid dogs, and showers of pig's blood. That interpretation of King was wrong when it first came into fashion, and it is still wrong today.
7. This new book is sure to be a point of debate with many King fans - one man's opinion versus a fan base of millions. Are you prepared for angry letters saying, "Why is ‘The Beggar and the Diamond' at #90?" or such?
Yes, I have had some experience in that area! When The Italian 100 came out, I had to answer precisely those types of questions. One of the most common was "Why wasn't Frank Sinatra ranked higher?” My answer was always that, when it came to ranking influence, I worked from a template. It seems that most experts agree that scientists and inventors have had the most influence on our world; followed by explorers, philsophers, theologians, and then artists. This usually sufficed in explaining THE ITALIAN 100's ranking system. For the King book, because we will be dealing with something as ineffable and subjective as writing, the judgments will be a little bit more arguable, but I am beginning with a criteria that establishes certain parameters of excellence, particularly in the aforementioned categories, including narrative voice, writing elegance, characterization, tension, thematic significance, etc. And then proceeding from there. And, as I mentioned earlier, I hope that my credentials lend a little more weight to my opinions in the eyes of King's fans.
8. In The Shape Under The Sheet, you had planned to reprint King's prologue to The Shining, "Before the Play," until King pulled it at the last minute. Any similar surprises for this book?
Possibly. I recently asked King for permission to reprint something extremely rare in the book. I have not received a reply as of the time of this interview, but I am hopeful. Stay tuned.
9. What other projects, King or non-King, do you have in development?
In the period from August 2000 through May 2001, I will publish seven new books:
- How To Be An Instant Expert - a book about how to do research for nonfiction projects, including books, magazine articles, speeches, and term papers.
- The USA Book Of Lists - a fun compilation of lists of American trivia, history, lore, and information, including an exclusive guest essay by Paul Revere.
- She Came In Through The Kitchen Window: Recipes Inspired By The Beatles & Their Music - Real recipes (mostly Italian) whose names are a pun on a Beatles song, including Sgt. Pepper's Peppers, We'd Love To Take You Home With Hummus, All My Linguini, I Want to Hold Your Ham Pie, Ticket To Rice, and more.
- The UFO Book Of Lists - a fascinating compilation of UFO information, legends, trivia, photos, stories, and more, including for the first time ever, a complete listing of unexplained UFO sightings made by US military personnel, drawn from the recently-declassified Project Blue Book files.
- Gems, Jewels, And Treasures (for QVC) - the authorized guide to gemstones, diamonds, pearls, gold, silver, and platinum, written especially for QVC. (I was a jeweler for almost twenty years before I turned to full-time writing in 1990.)
- The Cat Book Of Lists - a fun look at everything and anything to do with the greatest animal ever to walk the earth.
...and, of course, The Essential Stephen King.
I am also beginning work on a major book called The Forgotten about the victims of serial killers. (Not sure who will publish this one yet.) Plus, I have recently completed my first original screenplay, Women In Bras, and a novel called Orchids. I am working on a second screenplay and a new novel called Shelter Street. (An excerpt from Shelter Street appears in How To Be An Instant Expert.)
10. Thank you for taking time to answer my questions! Now, one for the road: What's Stephen King's number one best work?
You'll have to wait for the book for that answer, Kev, but I can tell you one thing about my choice for the top slot: it's a winner!