I only really started reading King’s fiction in earnest about three or four years ago (I had read 1987’s The Eyes of the Dragon as a fantasy-reading teenager and a few short stories in my 20s). After sampling a few novels, novellas, and short stories from his early, mid, and ‘late’ career (the dude churns out so many books that his ‘late’ phase is ever becoming his ‘mid’), I decided I wanted to try to read his output chronologically. I’m not super strict about it, but it’s fun and somewhat enlightening. I’ve now finished his 1970s publications (not every one of the Bachmans, but all the Kings).
King is a fascinating phenomenon to writers and publishers who don’t quite know what to make of his practically unparalleled success as a bestselling author. Is it a fluke? Sheer luck? Some sociological phenomenon? I suspect it’s real talent mixed with a certain uniqueness and, yeah, probably some sociologically driven moment-in-history ‘luck’ too. And also due to the fact that the guy is maybe the hardest working writer ever – or the most prolific hard working writer anyway. And, still further, that he felt personally challenged and driven, despite his success, always desiring to be better as an artist, and actually getting better through endless practice and growth.
Anyway, at the very least I think I’ve discovered that King did come out of the gate really, really strong in the 1970s, his debut decade. Most of those novels became almost instantly iconic and have probably only become more so – not just due to cinematic adaptations of varying success and quality, but due to King’s own original narrative and imagination behind whatever form of cultural production the stories take (not at all unlike Mary Shelley’s first novel and the endless mutations of Frankenstein monsters it yielded – her genius is ultimately behind them all). Here’s my brief report on each one. (I don’t think there’s anything massively spoiler-ish in what follows, but this discussion is mostly for those who have also read the books already.)
In a weird, twisted way this somewhat threadbare little first novel seems like an ‘All-American’ classic. Or the kind of twisted classic America really needs in its canon. It’s the Prom Gone Wrong teen novel full of sincerely believed-in telekinetic powers, graphic language, and claustrophobic social and sexual mania. It luridly describes a horrifically repressive, isolationist, and mentally ill version of religious fundamentalism brutally crashing into a cynical secular high-school hedonism and hate – the resultant copiously bloody mess of fire and broken steel is very much the car wreck you can’t tear your eyes away from. In a world now tragically and terrifyingly overfull of school shootings and bullying (and it’s sadly easy to play that scenario out to the international level), this somewhat pulpy (but always promising more than that, as King ever does in his fiction) little book is one of the central narratives for our times. In terms of the writing, it’s definitely King still finding his feet, but it’s pretty smartly done for all that and an uncharacteristically short number anyway.
‘Salem’s Lot (1975)
I wish I could have read all of these novels as they came out in the 70s. I think the impact must have been like a fetid roar and a raking of claws to the face. I suspect it was all so fresh and ferocious back when it first appeared, especially to the general audience it so immediately reached. I wish I could’ve read King’s vampire novel when it came out more than any of these other early works. It must have been exquisitely thrilling to encounter vampires in a contemporary, small town setting for (one of) the first time(s). King really hits his stride here in terms of his trademark gregarious tone, his plentiful ‘porch-swing’ sort of storytelling. The autumnal New England setting is gorgeous in its Bradbury-esque bitter-sweetness. The prose is occasionally marred by a slightly lazy Lovecraftian floridity when describing Gothic elements of the story, moments which made me cringe and laugh simultaneously. But overall I think King has more or less matured as a writer at this point. The characterisation takes solid hold and the monsters are lean and mean and nasty, either killing off or taking over some already nasty characters as well as more tragically offing or enslaving characters you root for. But I have to admit that reading the novel in the midst of our oversaturated day and age of Mod Vamps, King’s stab at the genre didn’t feel especially vivacious. It was, of course, refreshing that the vampires were simply inhuman blood-drinking overlords from some darkness in the Old World come to roost in the New World – instead of (poorly written) tormented teens or detectives or whatever. And King’s vampire book can still be very profitably mined for themes in my pet area of ‘theology of monsters’ since a priest’s earnest soul-searching about ‘traditional’ vs. ‘progressive’ Christian faith are a central conceit and concern of the novel. It’s quite powerful in that regard actually. At any rate, it’s good classical monster fodder if not as remarkable and original as the rest from this era.
The Shining (1977)
Uh oh. Now it really hits. By his second novel, King had more or less matured into a young prose craftsman. In his third novel he intentionally ups the ante for himself. He wrote in a 2001 introduction to The Shining that it was a crossing-the-line sort of novel for him and he felt that was the case as he wrote it. He decided to go deeper and darker with his central character, creating a hybrid protagonist-antagonist. I think I’d say this is one of King’s best books that I’ve read so far. It is one of his most internal. If Kubrick’s visually brilliant film version is an exercise in atmospheric and rather inexplicable horror, King’s novel is nearly the opposite. It’s one of the most inwardly labyrinthine tales I’ve read. The characters are trapped inside the endless interlocking and haunted rooms of the infamous hotel and we are trapped inside the endless interlocking and haunted rooms of the characters themselves. It feels almost like the entire novel is a series of counterpoised internal monologues. It also features King’s ability to nest story within story, reaching back and back into characters’ lives to round them out and make you care about the horrific tragedy they endure in the chilling preternatural circumstances at hand. Of course, it’s not really just the craftsman’s ‘rounding out’ to make his characters effective – you feel like King wants to know why they are the way they are as much as you do and he’s just digging up the dirt on them and publishing his finds. Indeed, King tends to have a very ‘juicy’ or ‘gossipy’ tone that makes you turn the pages to know why So-and-So has become so warped. He even ends up getting you just as invested in the antecedent warping of the mothers and fathers or whoever that have warped the character all this backstory began with. It’s a feat to make fellow writers feel very, very jealous. (Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is the main other example I’ve run into of this endlessly stacked and breathlessly related backstory characterisation.) I’m often surprised we don’t all just wish King ill in our jealousy and insecurity in the face of his obvious God-given talent. He’s nothing if he’s not a hard worker. He has clearly sweated, bled, and cried to achieve what he has achieved. But he started with the Gift, there’s no doubt. And some of us can’t help being a rather sick shade of green with envy. But he wins you over. Ultimately, you just go: ‘You lucky dog. Good for you. And thanks.’ (It helps a lot that he’s so disarmingly humble, honest, and charming when he comes out from behind the authorial curtain and talks frankly to his Constant Readers in introductions and notes.) There are enough differences with Kubrick’s film to keep you going even though you essentially know the novel’s story already if you’ve seen that film. It’s good.
Night Shift (1978)
Ah, now this is just a delightful collection of short stories. I admit it has a bit of personal history with me that adds to its glow. I was very ill with the flu and trying to meet an essay deadline and take care of five children (also ill) while my wife was out of town when I read most of the stories in here. They enthralled and appalled me deliciously and soothed my overwrought brain through a tough time. They’re all early stories, most of them first published in ‘gentleman’s magazines’ (what the hell is so gentlemanly about viewing pornographic photos of women will always be a mystery to me). The earliness of the material shows. This is not always King at his best in terms of skill, but it is often King at his best in terms of sheer imagination and verve. And sometimes in terms of skill too, to be honest. A few of these stories are some of the most gripping suspense stories I’ve ever read – even when they were about themes or scenarios I wouldn’t normally be the least interested in. Most of the stories stick pretty firmly to more or less familiar horror genre territory. But there’s an originality and flare here! I nearly tossed my cookies once or twice at just a few descriptive words of gore. I’m still haunted by one or two of the monstrous images. I even cried at the end of one of them it was so tragic and poignant! This is pulp fiction in the best sense: sensational and thrilling and chilling and pleasantly garish. There are also a few in here that push beyond that. ‘Night Surf’ and ‘I Am the Doorway’ are two of my very favourite atmospheric horror pieces. The former gives a tantalising slice of dystopian post-apocalypse (it’s apparently a first-run at the material that will make up The Stand) and the latter is, for my money, one of the best contemporary translations of Lovecraftian ‘cosmic horror’ I’ve come across – simple and impossible and inexplicable and cree-eepy. The collection contains one of King’s New England small-town elderly ‘voice’ pieces too (it’s one of the things King does best and I think it might still largely be a secret to the majority of his readership and the critics). The yarn is called ‘Gray Matter’ and it too is an exemplary contemporary take on Lovecraft, but this time his more terrestrial horror. Many of the stories have King’s infectious emphasis on the potential malice of inanimate objects, which could be analysed fruitfully by those interested in ‘object-oriented ontology’ and the like. The story ‘Trucks’ (upon which was based the hilarious and awesomely bad Maximum Overdrive movie) was a great little piece in this vein. Many like it in the collection are fanciful exercises in grim imaginative play and some are delightfully absurd, such as ‘Battleground’. ‘The Lawnmower Man’ (utterly unrelated to its later film ‘version’) and ‘The Children of the Corn’ are other standouts of the weird. Lots of good stuff in here. A great addition to the 70s output.
The Stand (1978)
I actually lucked upon a first-edition paperback of this book, so I’ve only read the 70s cut version and not the later 90s expanded version. But even this earlier shorter version is the longest thing King wrote in the 70s, coming in at around a thousand pages. It’s a beast. Once again King tops his previous game. Now he shows he can do thrilling, page-turning characterisation for a whole sprawling cast of characters, not just a few. This is high-octane King in the form of plague-decimated and supernaturally haunted post-apocalypse. The scope is nationwide and the tone is brutal, warm, chilling, and visionary by pretty quick turns. I don’t think I really took much of a breath until about halfway through. This is one of a number of King’s tales that turns the USA’s highways and geography into an epic painstakingly journeyed quest-scape of darkness and light. King has mentioned a number of times his desire to emulate Tolkien in various ways, but specifically in a North American instead of British setting. Though King and Tolkien couldn’t be more different in so many respects, King does manage to capture that feel of a very long and costly journey on foot through terrible dangers and against towering odds that is central to much of The Lord of the Rings. He succeeds in reminding me how incredibly large and diverse and scary and beautiful the sheer landscape and roadways of modern North America are, an ample testing ground for the souls that travel through it. I think the middle of the book lags a bit, but it picks up again and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss anything. I do think most of the real power and magic are in the first half. I’m actually looking forward to reading the later revised and expanded version someday. It’s definitely a long, strange and dark adventure I want to revisit. On a different note: I have to say, it seems to me like it’s some kind of well-guarded secret that this is a flat-out Christian novel. No, no, not ‘Christian bookstore’ fiction or the like. It’s got all the copious profanity and graphic content so characteristic of King, which alone would disqualify it (thank God) from getting anywhere near the sanitised industry of ‘Christian fiction’. (Whether King goes overboard with graphic content is whole other issue.) Think more along the lines of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Regardless, The Stand is decidedly not merely a generic Good-vs-Evil or Triumph-of-the-Human-Spirit saga. Crucial to its whole plot and theme is the ‘intervention’ of the Christian God himself – yeah, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that deity. I’ve probably never read so much actual prayer in a modern novel (indeed, this spiritual activity recurs throughout King’s works, even those that are otherwise in no way blatant about matters of faith). God-given visions and faithful obedience to God’s call are key characteristics of the story. The Christian characters are downright attractive too, real people with real flaws and struggles who nevertheless shine in their integrity and leadership – as do characters who are not explicitly ‘of the faith’; it’s not that King portrays the Christian characters better than the rest, but simply as good as some of the other admirable players in the drama, something many (most?) modern writers seem unwilling to do, if they acknowledge the existence of people of faith at all. King wisely weaves in doubt and agnosticism and so on also. He’s not beating anyone over the head. You can take the side of rationalist reductionism or conscientious epistemic doubt if you want. But real supernatural faith is right there on the table too. And this is the early King we’re talking about here. Not some later ‘converted’ King. And he’s only going to go on developing and circling back to this blatant Christian spirituality in the face of horror again and again in various later novels and stories (1996’s Desperation is a shining instance). And The Stand itself remains one of King’s single most celebrated novels. Why does no one really talk about the central Christian aspect of it? At any rate, it’s a book for everyone, regardless of worldview, a classic of contemporary urban fantasy writing and the kind of rich and engrossing tale you can really live with for a while.
The Dead Zone (1979)
This seems like it’s probably the least known of the 70s books, but to me it’s probably the very best – indeed, one of the very best of King’s whole canon out of what I’ve read so far (and I think I heard somewhere that King himself felt that way about it). Except for ‘Salem’s Lot, the rest of the novels from this era I would only call ‘horror’ fiction in a hybrid sense: they are woven as much of ‘realistic’ thriller or suspense fiction and paranormal fantasy and adventure fiction and just plain ‘homespun’ social drama as they are of actual horror tropes. There’s certainly enough of a centring emphasis on supernatural fear and grotesque violence to warrant his label as a horror writer, but anyone who’s read more than a few books by him will surely have discovered that there’s just so much more to him than that label implies. If I’d never heard of King before and the first thing I read by him was The Dead Zone, I seriously doubt I would have labelled it a horror novel. It is very dark, very magical and mysterious, at times incredibly menacing or nerve-racking, and there’s a serial killer subplot in there that is indeed out and out horrifying. These are all elements that could be found in, for example, a Neil Gaiman novel and we don’t call Gaiman a horror writer. We call his work ‘dark fantasy’ maybe and there’s a significant distinction there. I think a lot of what King writes could be better described under this rubric than bald ‘horror’. Anyway, The Dead Zone is primarily a highly poignant character-driven tale of deep loss and coping with that loss. It describes a man finding purpose in choosing to do good with what gifts tragedy has left in his hands whether he wanted those costly gifts or not. It is social and political too, as all of King is, but whereas The Stand was his most blatant book in this era on spirituality, The Dead Zone is his most blatant on politics. Indeed, the political baddie in this book is as terrifying as any supernatural baddie in King’s others. And the novel makes contemporary socially-torn America seem every bit as dangerous and scary as post-apocalyptic America. Yet this is such a personal novel too. It’s rather beautiful, the paranormal powers and the people both. (It’s worth noting that King gives a much more gentle and sympathetic portrait of a religious fundamentalist mother here, almost in counterpoise to the one in Carrie that opened this decade’s publications – and he also provides an alternative example of a more admirable faith in the father in this novel.) He really crowned his first decade with this book I think. It’s slightly less furious than the rest but no less urgent and searching. It’s like he’s taking a deep and calming breath before plunging on into the 80s (which turned out to be a troubled drug- and alcohol-fuelled, if still wildly successful, decade for him). Good show, Mr. King, good show.
Addendum: The Long Walk (1979)
This is the only of the 70s Bachman books that I’ve read so far. By the end of it I was really won over. This is quality disturbing dystopian fiction, ultimately very effective in its mesmerising and inexorable brutality. I do quite a few miles of walking in getting to where I need to every day. Doing so during the days in which I was reading this book invested those long-ish walks with a heightened sense of perception and urgency (and maybe, to be honest, a hint of terror!). If the […vague SPOILER…] ‘dark figure’ at the end of the book is akin to the ‘ragged figure’ that Flannery O’Connor spoke of in the introduction to her novel Wise Blood, then King’s The Long Walk may be the darkest and most brutal version of the (otherwise rather saccharine) ‘Footprints’ poem ever created. Indeed, the whole of King’s output strikes me, theologically, as something of a long and variegated Dark Theodicy. Don’t get me wrong, King is no C. S. Lewis. He’s not a Christian apologist. His method is very different (though complementary I would maintain). Theodicy is odyssey for King. He throws every amount and kind of monstrous evil and suffering at his journeying characters and then shows faith, hope, and love somehow, in at least some of them, miraculously surviving the onslaught (again echoing Tolkien’s own sort of Dark Theodicy). King does not at all deny the plausibility of Lovecraftian ‘cosmic horror’ or Nietzschean nihilism, that we are utterly alone in an utterly indifferent universe. These worldviews are given a full and fair and even rather seductive hearing in all of King’s works, indeed a particularly compelling one in The Long Walk. And yet, in King’s fiction, ‘these three remain’ (1 Corinthians 13:13). Just look at the self-sacrificially communal actions of the protagonist Garraty and the friends he has made out of his competitors by the end of the horrific Walk, even in the face of inexorable death and tyranny. That’s just one in a long line of such examples throughout King’s fiction. We are all of us on the terrifying and self-revealing Long Walk and it remains to be seen whether at the end of the line we are awaited by the sinister Major and his Prize or some other figure harder to see in all this obscuring inhumanity. What will we become during the journey? That’s what King’s fiction seems to ask. ‘This inhuman place makes human monsters’ is a refrain in The Shining. But not all the characters were turned into monsters by the hotel’s malevolent influence. Some made it through, wounded but wiser – and even, miraculously, more humane, more fully human. This redemptive motif is often left out of King’s public persona (usually crafted by others, not himself). For example, his words toward the end of his 2001 introduction to The Shining are often quoted and memed: ‘Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.’ I’ve even passed this one on myself on social media. It’s a cool little sound bite. But, inexplicably, what King wrote right after that cool little sound bite, the conclusion to his introduction, is never included: ‘That our better angels sometimes – often! – win instead, in spite of all odds, is another truth of The Shining. And thank God it is.’
So as I say, King comes out of the gates very strong in his first decade of writing. He’s made his mark and in some ways has no need to say anything further. Yet I am so very glad he did. I think some of his very best stuff is yet to come in each of the subsequent decades, probably including the one we are currently in. The quality of the writing in the 70s, as throughout the rest of his career, is mixed – mostly quite good I think, and doing some things better than anyone else. The good for me far outweighs the ‘bad’ and the bad is often trying to get at something good. I don’t, like others, fault King for being ‘homespun’ or ‘sentimental’. I mean, come on, surely part of his genius is being something like Lake Wobegon in Hell, or Mark Twain meets H. P. Lovecraft, or Norman Rockwell meets Hieronymus Bosch. I only fault him for his at times faltering or out and out unsuccessful execution of that sentimentality or rocking chair storytelling. But no writer is perfect and King has hooked me for good. Maybe in another five years I’ll be able to do a report on the 1980s Stephen King. (In the meantime, I’ll definitely review some individual novels from time to time, including some more recent stuff like Doctor Sleep.)