Time is a harsh mistress. At the time of On Writing’s publication, Stephen King was 26 years into his career, and a year out from his near fatal car accident. Nearly twenty years and approximately 29 books later, it is hard to conceive that On Writing almost didn’t happen, and that King was going to retire. Perhaps it was the cry of Constant Readers who thought that they would never know what would become of Roland and his Ka-tet; perhaps King himself could not resist the call of the Beam. On Writing heralded the return of the King, and Constant Readers remain grateful to this day.
Category: Constant Reader Chronicle
You don’t have to always follow your heroes through the gates of Hell. If Indiana Jones asks you to step into the Temple of Doom with him, you say “no thank you, Mister Jones. Call me when you’re looking for the cup of a carpenter, I want something a bit less imperialist.” This is a laboured metaphor already, but it turns out that Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s first non-fiction effort,is full of them. And “heh heh” asides. And blatant errors — Peter Pan and the “Wild Boys”, “Anarchy for the U.K.” — that have not been corrected in thirty years of reprints.
It’s not a case of don’t meet your heroes, but rather a case of “the past is a different country, you weren’t born yet, and nothing in this book means anything to you”. Danse Macabre does not hold up to a modern reader, dealing as it does with works that have largely been obscured by time, none of which have endured like the output of its author. Scrappy, and written with a giant chip on its shoulder, Danse Macabre is a curio.
This entry does not contain spoilers for the content of Pet Sematary, but it does address the overall tone of the piece, which, to some people, amounts to the same thing. You have been warned about this 36 year old terror.
Stephen King has that weird sort of luck: terrible things happen to him but they’re not as bad as they could have been, or terrible things almost happen to him and they turn into one of his bestsellers, even though he doesn’t like the finished product. Though King’s personal life is now largely defined by his car accident, back in 1979 young Owen King almost got killed by a truck while the King family lived between a busy road and a Pet Sematary. It did a number on King’s psyche, and thus Pet Sematary was born — a book that is too dark and too real for him to enjoy, published largely out of a contractual obligation. Where your standard King novel up to this point (and, admittedly, a few were skipped by this reader to get to Pet Sematary in time for the movie adaptation) offers some degree of hope, regardless of how many terrible events occur between their pages, Pet Sematary is largely a black hole. Abandon all hope ye who inter here.
The Vietnam War, Watergate, the existence of Richard M. Nixon, the Cold War and basically anything overtly political in the wake of World War II bred a healthy distrust of the US Government. Whenever something even vaguely good or hopeful eventuated, like a fresh faced Kennedy with an impenetrably thick accent, it got shot down. It is through all of this that Stephen King brought us Firestarter at the turn of the eighties, just before Ronald Reagan came along to Make America Great Again for the first time, a legacy being paid for – with interest – in the modern era.
Firestarter is the sort of novel that, were it not presented in the traditional King “bestseller with depth” format, is both written and read under the safety of a tinfoil hat. In the world of Firestarter, and our own Keystone Earth, governments are capable of great evil. But in King’s world, evil produces tangible results.
Stephen King’s fifth novel was published eleven months after The Stand, which towered even in its original abridged form. The Dead Zone is a mere half the length, but it takes longer to get somewhere. Some King novels you’re under the spell of at the time, and others you receive in retrospect. The Dead Zone is a novel that exists on the periphery — in its own Dead Zone — and defies expectations. It runs with some themes that are already recurring in King’s work, and introduces the embryos of ideas that will bear such fruit as one could scarcely imagine.
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.
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.
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.