Richard Bachman, you crazy kidder. You should have started with The Long Walk! Stephen King’s alter ego’s sophomore effort is a blood bath set in a horrible seventies dystopia, but it’s not inhuman. It is the first of Bachman’s novels about deadly competitions, and one that has firmly influenced future generations of writers of nightmare dystopias — in a far more positive way than Rage ever inspired anyone. The Long Walk is Bachman’s first good novel and, chronologically, the first novel that King ever wrote. Sometimes things just don’t happen in order.
Category: Stephen King
Stephen King’s first short story collection is from the olden days when genre short stories ruled the earth, and people would just read them where they lay — in the pages of Penthouse, no less, when you really could read them for the articles. Of Night Shift’s 20 stories, a full 80% were published ahead of collection, and half of them were published ahead of Carrie. The short story mode is completely different to the novel, and King was rightfully confident in this early selection. There are some remarkably strong entries in here, several of which became films — in at least one case, entirely too many films — the embryos of later works, and a couple of continuations of ‘Salem’s Lot (which are now published in modern reprints of same).
Night Shift is a collection of short stories for people who no longer believe in them, and because of the form and era, not all endings have to be neat or happy, or undisturbing. King has a bit of everything in here, and few weaknesses.
One cannot accuse Stephen King of getting sentimental in his old age, because he has always had a soft heart, and it’s not always very deeply buried beneath the evil clowns, cars, and hotels. Elevation, essentially a novella, takes ideas that King has tackled before — Thinner springs readily to mind — but twists them, and makes them optimistic. Elevation is a short work that eschews complex explanation of its contents in favour of a quick burst of emotion and a punch of an ending.
More can be said about Richard Bachman than can be said about Rage, his secret and forbidden debut novel, pulled from the shelves during the early days of school shooting contagion. Written well before school shootings became so common that it is difficult to tell them apart, Rage is a Stephen King piece so early that he was in high school himself when he wrote it.
Richard Bachman is a pseudonym created by Stephen King for a variety of reasons depending on what King feels like telling the reader at the time: Bachman was a way for King to put out more books per year, separate from the King brand; he was a way to get rejected earlier works published after some retooling; he was a chance to see if, eventually, Bachman’s books were able to be read, sold, and appreciated separately to the King name; and, to quote 1996’s “The Importance of Being Bachman”, an imprint for books written “in a Bachman state of mind: low rage, sexual frustration, crazy good humor, and simmering despair.”
Rage is not a cry for help, but rather a bitter study of the powerlessness that teenagers can feel, and the most artificial power they can conjure to battle that: a warm gun.
Spoilometer: this write up goes into a fair amount of detail about The Shining. It is not safe if you want to discover the secrets of The Overlook for yourself, because The Shining is one of the more pure delights available on this mortal plane.
The third book in Stephen King’s catalogue is The Shining, which is famous for inspiring one of the most iconic films of all time. However, Kubrick’s The Shining is the first of many adaptations that King has been disappointed in, to the point that he eventually had to sign an agreement saying that he would stop publicly expressing his distaste for the film.
While The Shining (1980) rightfully has a place in the cinematic canon, The Shining is a novel that we can not (doctor) sleep on. While both Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot had much to recommend them, The Shining is arguably his first masterpiece. Drawing on what we would come to recognise as parts of King’s personal, professional, and family life, there are many demons exercised and exorcised between these pages. The Shining is a completely realised work in a way that few novels of any genre are.
Constant Reader Chronicle is a new feature that aims to cover a single Stephen King novel, in chronological order, on a near monthly basis. It will skip novels undertaken as part of the Dark Tower cycle and the Mr. Mercedes novels but will otherwise cover every major work that Stephen King and that pesky Richard Bachman has committed to the page. Given that Carrie is such an iconic place to begin a career, this entry will contain fairly comprehensive spoilers. The remaining entries will be spoiler rated on an individual basis.
Stephen King’s first published novel is the prototypical King. The seeds of so many future books are present here, often in the most embryonic form, and Carrie predicts a bright future for its author that came true in perhaps the most lucrative way imaginable. You have a girl with a Shine (although it is not, of course, called that yet), a small town filled with people both decent and awful, and a cavalcade of carnage concentrated in the climax. Though parts of Carrie flirt with a form that wouldn’t ultimately come to be associated with King, this is an exquisitely realised first release.
If you have any experience with The Dark Tower series, it doesn’t take long to realise that the works of Stephen King are all connected, even if the links are sub-dermal. The Outsider presents itself at first as if it were a straight crime drama, like Mr. Mercedes, but as the impossibility of the crime presented becomes more apparent, we are asked to accept that perhaps something else is at play; like End of Watch, as it turns out. This leads to one of King’s bigger works of pastiche: at times The Outsider seems to be echoing Salem’s Lot by way of It with a light brushing of Bill Hodges’ finest moments. The result isn’t a bad novel, but it is one that peaks early and never quite recovers its momentum.
After Terry “Coach T” Maitland is arrested at a baseball game in front of 1,588 spectators, the town of Flint turns against him. Police investigator Ralph Anderson has incontrovertible evidence that Maitland killed eleven year old Frank Peterson, but Maitland has an airtight alibi. As the impossibilities of Maitland’s guilt continue to pile up, Anderson doubles down on his conviction, and Maitland’s friends look further afield for answers.
The first third of The Outsider is some of King’s finest work, in a career littered with fine works. The classic small town feel King has honed across the years meets with a crime procedural thrown slightly off-kilter and it works well. The whole book could have been about this sequence of events and you might never have minded that it never opened up. But open up it does, and after that it can’t help but taper somewhat.
The key problem with the second and third acts of The Outsider is that King’s protagonist focus is hazier than usual: by the time you realise that Ralph Anderson is supposed to be a sympathetic figure, the man has exhausted whatever sympathy he had been allocated, and he has a long way to claw his way back up to respectability. King has had far more wicked characters make greater leaps to sympathy — as recently as last year’s Sleeping Beauties, with its exquisitely realised Frank Geary — but up to the end, Anderson doesn’t seem worthy, even as a flawed protagonist.
King has more luck with another character, a different outsider, introduced around the halfway mark. She provides much of the investigative legwork and it’s difficult not to warm to her, but she doesn’t work as well as a foil for Anderson as one might hope. This character is the true heart of the book, the drawcard to reward the Constant Reader, yet she also unlocks The Outsider’s Council of Elrond problem.
The Outsider has the convening of councils to cope with their constituents’ crises of conscience – just like Salem’s Lot – but they take up many more pages and recycle information that both us and the characters already know. At no point does the reader need to suspend disbelief; they are, after all, reading a Stephen King novel. There is good reason for King to want to show the investigation process, yet the desire to both show and tell hinders the development of a novel that essentially stops for a giant stretch of time.
The pastiche carries on into the finale, which is familiar to the point of feeling like King has explicitly rewritten one of his earlier works. It’s good reading, but the build-up and the payoff don’t quite meet each other; the consolation lies in knowing that we are supposed to recognise what King has done and where he is going, but it smacks more of King’s desire to return to old stomping grounds than it does to explicitly satisfactory storytelling.
The Outsider mixes some of King’s best work with a good, if slightly rusty, caboose slapped onto the back. Some of its lesser elements will inevitably age well if King follows through on any of what he appears to promise between these pages, but as it stands, The Outsideris a good if not fully cohesive novel.
The Talisman was the sort of book that a lot of people idolise, even if so much of it was a product of a darker, far less progressive time. Where that book had a lot of good material, much of it was mired in the unnecessary. Some seventeen years later, Peter Straub and Stephen King teamed up again to bring back Jack Sawyer, in adult form. Like its predecessor, Black House features children in peril, but none of them are the protagonist. This remove makes the novel easier to take because no unsuspecting preteen boys are being preyed upon by literally every car driving man in America, and the two have a stronger grasp of both audience expectation and precisely what they’re plotting.