He's Still Got It

Stephen King Writes the 90's


Question: Has Stephen King lost his touch?

How does one answer that? It’s a question you hear more often these days, in response to the new directions King has taken in the last decade of the century. There has been a shift in King’s writing, true. Not content to simply spew out one plot with different stage dressing, King has recently produced wildly different ideas that prove his ability to grow and change. The advent of internal, non-horrific novels such as Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game (largely and erroneously seen as “feminist parables,” along with the chase novel Rose Madder) has brought about some consternation in King’s general readership. Long books such as Insomnia, which give us unconventional heroes and slow, steady buildups have frustrated the average King fan. And, of course, the long waiting period between The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands and The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass angered many.

But lost his touch? No. Stephen Spignesi makes note in the book Demon-Driven (George Beahm, editor) that The Dead Zone is a better novel than The Tommyknockers, illustrating the difference in quality between young King and older King. While the statement may be true, it can also be argued that Desperation is a better novel than Cujo. But to fully grasp where King has taken himself and his readers in the 1990s, perhaps it would be prudent to look at the decade (thus far) in review:

Stephen King began the 1990’s by revamping and un-dissecting his readers’ favorite novel: The Stand. The move was canny: it at once re-released an established masterwork, but at the same time brought King up to date, reinforcing the notion that King was still king, and the nineties had better watch out. In addition to updating certain cultural references (both Madonna and the Nightmare on Elm Street films made it in), King also restored “cut” sections of the manuscript, which would have made the book longer and thus more expensive in 1978. In addition to scenes which more fully flesh out the existing characters (Frannie Goldsmith’s confrontation with her mother is the most vivid), King brings to the stage one of his most frightening human monsters: a terror known simply as The Kid, whose psychosexual dementia presages a dark undercurrent of violent sex in King’s recent work.

The newer version of The Stand is more complete and more fulfilling than the original, and many faithful readers of the 1978 edition have switched over to proclaim this as their favorite.

It certainly was an explosive way to begin the decade.

Following closely on the heels of the unexpurgated The Stand came a collection called Four Past Midnight. This, too, harkened back to a similar idea: like 1982’s Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight contained four novellas of varying lengths. Again, though, King did not rehash the old; the concept was similar, the content was wildly different.

“The Langoliers,” a science fiction story along the lines of The Twilight Zone, opens the collection with a similar King plot structure: several people of disparate personalities, trapped in an inexplicable situation, and forced to deal with it on a rational level (Skeleton Crew’s “The Mist” is a good example of this type of story.) An exciting, surprising tale of alternate timelines, this story has become many readers’ favorite short work of King’s. The following story, “Secret Window, Secret Garden” is one of King’s best works of fiction. It continues a thread throughout many of King’s most popular works: the theme of the writer as master and slave to his art has been explored in the novels Misery, The Dark Half, and It. The novella features some of King’s best interpersonal exchanges, as well as a scary plot that spirals inward to reveal the insanity at its very core. “The Library Policeman” is a truly terrifying tale of repressed childhood memory (explored to greater length in both Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne), with an overlying supernatural element similar to that of It. (On a personal note, this story is so disturbing and scary, I could only read it once.) “The Sun Dog” finishes the collection on a sour note. While keeping with King’s use of similar themes and locales used in the rest of the book (“The Sun Dog” prominently features King’s most famous fictional town, Castle Rock), this is a horror story that simply meanders around its horror, making it more of an interesting story than a good one. King has long been accused of too little editing, and in this case, the point is justified. Still, one clunker out of four isn’t bad, especially due to the fact that the clunker opens up a literary byway to King’s next full-length novel, Needful Things.

“You’ve been here before,” Needful Things begins, and on the surface, the statement is correct. The setting is Castle Rock, Maine – the locale of such novels and stories as The Dead Zone, Cujo, “The Body,” and The Dark Half. But as the reader enters the book, it becomes clear that the structure and style is different. More than any other King book, Needful Things is a movie-like experience. We don’t feel as if we are reading the book, but simply watching the characters live. It’s almost as if King had simply videotaped a town’s interaction for a few days and somehow translated it into word format. The plot involves a stranger from out of town known as Leland Gaunt, whose new store called Needful Things promises something for everyone. What the townsfolk don’t know is the price for their needful things is their soul, and the eventual breakup of a close-knit community. King subtitled this “The Last Castle Rock Story,” and while he hasn’t exactly kept his word on that (both Nightmares & Dreamscapes and Gerald’s Game pop in for a visit), the act of demolition plowed King an open space for much experimentation.

Before King went any further, however, he let his readers enjoy a third foray into the world of The Dark Tower. At once, we see shifts and changes in King’s style and substance. The first novel in the series, The Gunslinger, is very much a straight Western with science-fiction and fantasy overtones. The second, The Drawing of the Three, involved the theme of duality, both in terms of alternate worlds and alternate personalities. This third meshes all these elements together into one cohesive whole. Genres drift in and out of the story without ever changing the tone, giving the novel a rich, vibrant texture. The theme of dual natures continues for the first half, culminating in one of King’s most horrific scenes (this time involving a haunted house that is actually alive). The second half forwards the journey to the Dark Tower considerably, bringing the pilgrims through the remains of a once beautiful world, and giving glimpses into the possible cause of the destruction of Mid-World. The final scenes are hectic and amazing, with the group facing challenges such as a warring, deeply religious race, a meglomanic timekeeper known as The Tick Tock Man, and a final, open-ended battle within the belly of a psychotic train.

Before continuing the search for the Tower, however, King decided to switch tracks and try something different. The well-established “Master of Horror” broke new ground for himself in the sexual drama Gerald’s Game, the first in a series of novels at some level dealing with the battle of the sexes. It begins with one of King’s trademark opening sequences, this one a tense and disturbing scene of a handcuff bondage game. This in itself is a shock to King’s readers: in the past, the novelist had often been reticent to use sex in a story; now, the entire plot of the book depends on it. After a struggle in which her husband Gerald dies, Jessie Burlingame is left alone, trapped on the bed, with only her memory and the voices in her head. As the novel progresses, we learn that Jessie has had a similar experience before – caught in a similar situation with her pants down. The struggle to release herself from the chains of her past as well as the physical chains around her wrists combine to make the whole of the novel. The problem with Gerald’s Game is that it is the first of a series of similar-type novels, and, as the first, it bears the brunt of making some mistakes. The lines of good and bad are clearly set: Gerald’s Game makes it clear that all men are bad and all women are victims. Despite some gory scenes and some (let’s face it) well-done psychological drama, this book is more a statement than a novel.

The following book, the shorter Dolores Claiborne, is where King sets his stride. He seems to have recognized the problems inherent in Gerald’s Game, cleaned them up, and given us a tour de force of plot and voice. The novel concerns a woman named Dolores Claiborne, an island woman who has been accused of murder for the second time in her life. She is a tough, smart person who knows what her priorities are and where her responsibilities lay. The novel, as a book, represents something entirely original: a spoken first-person narrative – we read it as if Dolores were talking aloud. And in this voice, we hear Dolores’ veneer crack, her toughness melting into the knowledge of her compassion, with many surprises and difficult choices highlighting the story. King’s “horror-only” fans may have missed it, but the scenes detailing the struggle at the well and several dream visions are as scary as anything in ‘Salem’s Lot. As well as perfecting this type of story, King has incorporated familiar horrific elements, and brought them together to create on of his strongest, most accessible novels.

Once again keeping with tradition, King published a short-story collection seven years after his last, Skeleton Crew (which had been printed seven years after King’s first, Night Shift.) This may have been where some of King’s staunch fans ran into problems. Many of the tales are longer, but that didn’t necessarily mean better. The opener, a Poe homage called “Dolan’s Cadillac” is good, but nowhere near as strong as the openers for the previous two collections. Several of the stories (most notably “The Ten O’clock People, “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band,” and “My Pretty Pony”) seem to go on too long, meandering in details and often losing the plot. However, some of King’s finest fiction work lies within: another writer’s tale, “Umney’s Last Case,” is an excellent tale dealing with a writer’s hold over his own characters. “The House on Maple Street” is a blatant takeoff on the tales of Ray Bradbury (with some help by Chris Van Allsburg, who provided the impetus for the story), and a terrific little story in its own right. “Dedication,” King’s most disgusting story to date, is also a well-written account of a mother’s love for her son. And there is horror: “Home Delivery,” “Rainy Season,” “Suffer the Little Children,” and “Crouch End,” are all scary, suspenseful tales, and worthy of inclusion in any King collection. As a whole, Nightmares & Dreamscapes is a good book marred by some poorly chosen entries, but still showed King’s growth as a short fiction writer.

The novel Insomnia features an unlikely protagonist – and elderly widower named Ralph Roberts who begins to loose sleep a little at a time. The book opens similarly to Needful Things: it takes its time getting to where it wants to go, but the trip there is well worth it. When it finally does get around to a plot, Insomnia becomes one of King’s most exciting and well-written novels. We care about Ralph and his friend Lois, and their journey to serve a higher purpose. Eventually, readers come to discover that the story of Insomnia doesn’t begin or end between the covers of the hefty book: much of the history of the locale, Derry, had been explored in the previous novel It, and Insomnia relies on knowledge of that book and builds on it. But that’s not all: when the supernatural begins to exercise itself in Ralph’s life, readers come to understand that Insomnia is a holding place for the world of The Dark Tower, and Ralph’s quest isn’t just to save Derry, but to save all civilization.

With the most gruesome sequence ever to play across the pages of a King novel, King opens his novel Rose Madder with a disturbing look at domesticity gone wrong. Rosie Daniels lives in terror of her cop husband, a seriously deranged wife beater named Norman. After waking one morning and seeing a single drop of blood on the bedsheet, Rosie takes Norman’s ATM card and runs away. The first half of the novel is a taut chase book – scary and exciting. While Rosie tries to rebuild a life for herself in the big city, Norman goes on the prowl looking for her, leaving destruction in his wake. Halfway through, the novel shifts genres, brought on by a magical painting Rosie finds in trade for her wedding ring (an overtly symbolic but warranted event.) The painting opens up for her the world of Rose Madder – a dark twin of herself who is desperate for her missing child. The remainder of Rose Madder shifts between real-world suspense and mythical supernaturalism, still exciting but losing some of its power near then end. Interestingly enough, this novel also contains something King hadn’t attempted before: the exploration of a new, healthy romance between adults. It is perhaps the best part of Rose Madder, and a theme which King had decided to work with more often.

1996 brought upon many changes in the presentation of Stephen King. Not only did he decide to change his style of writing with his next book, he decided to change the format in which it was published. The Green Mile, a Depression-era supernatural tale, was released in six installments – an idea out of date since the days of Charles Dickens. The concept, though outmoded, seemed refreshing to the book-buying public, who bought the books in record numbers and kept King on the bestseller’s lists for six straight months. The story was one of King’s strongest as well: a first-person account of a prison guard named Paul Edgecombe and the strange year in which John Coffey came into Cold Mountain Prison to be executed. The story was sad, scary, and (in the fourth installment) quite gory – a perfect blend of horror and drama, with a Biblical motif the best since that of The Stand. With a cliffhanger at the end of the first five episodes, King really couldn’t lose with this one, and it only began to set the stage for the remainder of the year.

The twin novels Desperation and The Regulators were released under two different names, the first Stephen King, the second, Richard Bachman. King’s pseudonym was pronounced officially “dead of cancer of the pseudonym” in 1985 with the release of Thinner and the discover of the identity of its author. In the promotional hype for The Regulators, it was explained that a box of manuscripts by Bachman had been discovered, and The Regulators was the first of those manuscripts to be published. A clever idea, one which set the stage for an even more clever concept. Both Desperation and The Regulators contain the same characters, but they each belong to separate worlds and inhabit separate bodies. Desperation takes a healthy if scary look at religion in the person of David Carver. He is one of several travelers who end up trapped in the small mining town of Desperation, Nevada by an evil force known as Tak. David’s relationship with God is a reciprocal one – God saved a friend of David’s from dying years ago, now David must save the survivors of Desperation. Using Biblical imagery, the child-as-savior motif, and some of his best, most engaging characters (especially one Johnny Marinville, a character allowed to change and grow faced with the force of evil), King’s Desperation is one of his best books.

The Regulators, on the other hand, is Godless. In the tradition of the earlier Bachman books, this novel is scary and violent, with a cynical attitude and a dark underbelly. For instance, David Carver appears in this novel as well (albeit in a different persona), and gets blown away in the first thirty pages. A novel attacking the dangers of television and consumerism, this is one of King’s fastest reads. (A touch more “King” than Bachman makes this book unique: the ending chapters refer to the Mohonk Hotel, featured in the book Thinner – the self-referential gimmick is a constant King device.)

Between these mass-market books, King’s own publishing house released a limited edition of Six Stories, a collection of tales King had published in various venues in the nineties. All are bizarre, off-the-wall tales, some better than others: “Autopsy Room 4” is one of King’s most out-and-out scary stories, playing on fears of claustrophobia and paralysis, culminating in a perfectly executed hilarious ending. “The Man in the Black Suit” is an old-fashioned horror story about a boy who meets the devil in the woods a year after his brother died. “Lunch at the Gotham Café” is a weird little story about the nature of conductive insanity from the conductee’s point of view. The other stories “L.T.’s Theory of Pets” is a terrific tale about relationships and how they go wrong, until the ending which doesn’t seem to fit. The same can be said of both “Luckey Quarter” (was it a dream, or was it real?) and “Blind Willie” – both tales with frustrating, inconclusive endings but the bulk of which are well-written. With Six Stories, King once again revealed his passion for publishing for the fun of it, giving his readers an inexpensive limited edition, and giving himself a chance to escape the rigors of publishing for a conglomerate.

Finally, we come to the fourth of the Dark Tower novels, Wizard and Glass. Tying up the cliffhanger at the end of the third book quickly, we soon discover that the past references in this novel become less a gimmick and more the entire idea. Within the first two hundred pages, there are references to The Stand and Insomnia, as well as a dream sequence involving key player in past Dark Tower novels. Then, the look back becomes an integral part of the plot – and the entire middle of the book becomes a story within a story, detailing many events which befell Roland before the first novel, The Gunslinger took place. Continuing the explorations of romance King began in Rose Madder, he has his last gunslinger recount the beautiful but tragic affair between himself and his first true love, Susan. In effect, Wizard and Glass becomes King’s first full-length treatment of a romance novel (albeit with much fantasy and Western imagery, including a standoff that is one of King’s most entertaining and well-written scenes.) The final third of the book brings the troop into a slightly skewed version of The Wizard of Oz, and detailing a confrontation with one of King’s most well-known characters. Like the second volume, The Drawing of the Three, not much actual journeying to the Tower happens, but the background into the motivations of Roland to find the Tower intrigue and excite us, preparing us for the final sequence of novels (King has promised three more, with characters and events from his past novels making reappearances in the future.)

What comes next? A new novel set in Derry called Bag of Bones, which continues along the lines of romance within a ghost story. A nonfiction book called On Fiction, apparently more autobiographical than Danse Macabre. An as-yet-untitled story collection, fitting neatly into the seven-year sequence. And let’s not forget the final Dark Tower novels, as well as any surprises King can come up with yet this century.

So, has Stephen King lost his touch? It’s a question each individual reader will have to answer personally. But look: the output is still there. He keeps challenging himself, both in his writing and mode of selling it. Even when he’s not doing horror, King still creates memorable characters, intriguing plots, and exciting payoffs. And he doesn’t back down. Nope, nothing wrong here.

He’s still got it.