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November 24, 2003



Psst. It's "Stephen." No worries; I can't remember the names of my junior high school friends either.

Russell Arben Fox

"I have so much affection for [Stephen] King on account of countless pleasant hours spent reading his first, second, third, fourth and fifth rate fat novels."

Since you're a literate and well-read guy, I'm curious John: which King novels do you regard as first rate, and second, and third, etc.? I haven't read any King in years, but back when I did (mostly in high school, some later on), I really wasn't that impressed with his novels (not even The Stand, which from what I can tell almost all his serious fans seem to consider his best), though he could certainly keep his plots cranking right along. What I loved were his short stories. Skeleton Crew, Different Seasons, Night Shift--I loved all those collections. King's short stuff was always, I felt, scarier, more fantastic, and truer than any of his big books. (My memory of "Grandma," "The Body," and "Survivor Type" still freak me out, 15-20 years on.)

Charles Stewart

Is this comment thread for discussing "speculative" fiction, or for discussing the merits of low/high- brow literature? W.r.t the first, I never read King, but I enjoyed Clive Barker very much (especially his short stories), and some of the comics in the DC/Vertigo series.

W.r.t the latter: maybe a better "axis" is the need for an axis containing the "good bad" category in describing books (Orwell's coinage): good literature has lasting value, bad literature should be tossed aside, either lightly or with great force, and "good bad" literature is what floats to the top of the pile of any given hack reviewer's pile on any given month. Most highbrow literature is quite as dreadful as most lowbrow literature; fortunately less of it gets published...


Went and corrected the whole Steven/Stephen thing. Now why did I make that silly mistake? I've actually written about King before on numerous occasions and gotten it right. Ah, well.

Russell, I think the only really truly first rate King is maybe "The Shining". I think then there's lots of really enjoyable second-tier stuff including the short stories you mention and a bunch of novels. ("Night Shift" is a better short story collection than "Skeleton Crew". "Different Seasons" is nice, too.) I would say, "The Dead Zone". I would also include "The Stand", but don't bother reading the extra long 1990 director's cut. Turns out there are reasons for editors.

"The Stand" is maybe not so good, but I think it's been tremendously influential - maybe more so than "The Shining" - and for good and bad. Future historians of fantastic fiction will regard this as a significant juncture. In general, King's 70's stuff seems to me to stand tall because he was inventing a genre; and in a way King - when he was younger - was more attuned to pop culture in a way that he was able to communicate effectively in his story-telling. These days I feel (and King himself has more or less admitted it) he's coasting. And his story-telling style and - frankly - personality have something inherently immature about them that haven't really allowed him to move on to more adult themes. This isn't as mean as it sounds. The man, as a writer, has all the advantages and disadvantages of a rock band. Good when very young ... then just what you would expect. I think this is a pretty good analogy, actually. It's not that the stuff King has produced in the 90's is clearly worse in a way you could quite put your finger on. But it really is like late Rolling Stones. It feels like someone has just gotten the hang of doing something that was originally only one step up from an adolescent outburst. And now it's not anything like an outburst anymore, so it's a bit suspect just because it's calculated, not fully felt. Actually, maybe Aerosmith is a better comparison than the Rolling Stones. First King wrote the literary equivalent of "Sweet Emotion"; now he's just rewriting "Janie's Got A Gun". A step down that wouldn't be noticable to some - probably for good reasons. But it makes a difference if you've got early Aerosmith on your list of guilty pleasures.

I'll just skip down the list to the fifth rate stuff. "The Dark Tower", "The Talisman". All his fantasy stuff, so far as I am aware, is unreadably bad.

I should say as well that I really haven't been reading King for about 10 years now. So my assessment could be out of date. But I doubt it.

Russell Arben Fox

"I would also include "The Stand", but don't bother reading the extra long 1990 director's cut."

I started that, but didn't get past the first section. He might have had good reasons for including what had been previously cut; I'm not an editor. But he made a terrible stylistic mistake in "updating" the book when he added back in all that had been cut before. References to Ronald Reagan, to the AIDS epidemic, and so forth just ruined the hysterical, paranoid, 1970s/hippy-trash/edge-of-the-Cold-War apocalyptic magnetism of the book. It still wasn't, I think, an especially great read, but I can remembering reading it at I don't know what age (14?) and just being swept up with the gassy, righteous anger of it all, at how THE MAN had finally DONE IT and KILLED US ALL. Good bloody delirious fun. It didn't work quite the same in a setting where, no matter how hard you tried to imagine it, you just knew that the Maoists were about 12 years out of place, and that no one called Jerry Garcia "Captain Tripps" anymore.

I don't remember "The Shining" too well; it's still those short stories which stick out most in my memory. I don't think I ever read "The Dead Zone." Is the Walker/Sheen adaptation any good?

Great analogy vis-a-vis Areosmith, by the way. King would probably approve.


Shirley Hazzard, it turns out, has just had published "The Great Fire", which is her first book in ages and is on lots of end-of-year lists (well, the Economist's anyway). From the reviews, she does sound pretty much like the anti Stephen King. I hope they didn't touch when they were on that stage.

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