LURID: Does King Deserve The Crown?

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Horror Literature.  Is that an oxymoron?

Horror equates to trash. Horror stories cannot be considered as literature.  Whilst good books improve the mind, Horror rots it. If you read trash, you’ll end up with junk for brains.

If you read too much Horror, you’ll go blind.

Across the literary landscape, there’s a fence.  Eight feet of welded wire mesh topped with dual-tech motion detectors and robot sentries every twenty yards.  On one side of the fence are the good books.  Books to confab about in coffee shops, compare at social functions, cozy up to on the subway.  Fashionable books, chattering books, validated books.  Proper literature.   Behind the fence are piles of black-and-red jacketed paperbacks.  Bad Books, leaking danger like so much congealing blood.  KEEP OUT, TRESPASSERS WILL BE DOOMED FOR ALL ETERNITY.

If you read too much Horror, you’ll warp your fragile little mind.

One author’s name appears on the cover of an awful lot of those Bad Books.  Accurate sales figures aren’t available, but estimates suggest Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books worldwide since Carrie was first published in 1974.  Only J.K. Rowling even comes close.  He’s pumped out, on average, almost two books a year since then, ranging from short story collections, to novellas, to the 1000+ page heft of The Stand, It, and Under the Dome.  He’s personally lured millions of readers over that fence.  If Horror is an addiction, then Stephen King is the gateway drug.

Quick Hits: 5 Classic King Plots in Capsule Form

Marching Powder
The Long Walk (1979): Don’t stop, or you’ll be shot.

Lost Weekend
Misery (1987): Use those animal words round your Number One Fan and she’ll chop your Christing foot off.

Kitty Flipping
Pet Sematary (1983):  Look what dragged the cat in.

Waiting For The Man
IT (1986): The prehistoric clown in the sewer wants to eat your arm.

(un)Comfortably Numb
Gerald’s Game (1992):   “I can’t feel my fingers.  Who’s there?”

More than any writer alive, King defines the genre through the sheer force of his output.  That means he also epitomizes all that’s wrong with it.  His books can be bloated, mawkish, implausible and crude, pap fiction for readers whose need to be entertained overrides their propensity for critical thinking.  He aims low, weaving the commonest of denominators, Sex and Death, into folksy tapestries depicting the predictable triumph of Good over Evil.  He writes for readers without passports, those whose geographical limits extend no further than the next small town.  His narratives gush in torrents of consciousness, drowning the reader in the emotional and cognitive experiences of the protagonist (who inevitably changes before the end of the book), leaving no room for intellectual thought or critical distance.  Reading one of his lesser novels (Cell, Desperation, Gerald’s Game) is akin to being a rat caught in a glue trap: it feels as if you have to gnaw off one of your limbs in order to get out of there alive.

Does King even write his own books?  The Internet rumor mill suggests that since his near-fatal accident in 1999, his wife has been churning out novels on his behalf.  Or, alternatively, there’s a room full of ghostwriters scribbling away under the brand name, V.C. Andrews style. Or a zoo full of monkeys with typewriters.  According to popular legend, King himself doesn’t remember writing some of his 1980s bestsellers — those from his worst cocaine years, when he had to stuff cotton wool up his nose to stop blood from dripping on his typewriter and was frequently discovered passed out at his desk in a pool of vomit.

And yet, King also epitomizes the scope and the heart of Horror.  At his best, he is a master storyteller who knows the genre inside out.  You can’t put his Bad Books down – and that’s no mean feat for a writer of any stripe.  Simplicity of language doesn’t always equate to simplicity of thought — just ask Papa Hemingway or e.e. cummings. As well as scaring us shitless, King’s books function as elaborate allegories, fairy tales for our time.  From Carrie (the fable of The Bullied Girl Who Bit Back) to Under The Dome (a sophisticated critique of the Bush regime), King’s books throw all kinds of unexpected punches. They can be a treatise on childhood and the loss of innocence, as is The Body.  His first novel, The Long Walk, written when he was 18 and later published as a Bachman book, crystallizes more of the futility and horror of the sacrifice society demands of its young men than any amount of literary fiction that addresses war as a theme (Strange Meeting, the Regeneration trilogy, Atonement). King writes haunted house (or car or hotel or mine shaft) stories as opposed to boardroom or bedroom drama, because, like Ambrose Bierce, he believes that “the soul hath her seat in the abdomen”.  King is aiming those punches straight for your gut. In Danse Macabre (1981), he articulates his writing goals thus:

The perfect reaction, the one every writer of horror fiction or director who has worked in the field hopes for when he or she uncaps a pen or lens: total emotional involvement, pretty much undiluted by any real thinking process.[1]

Total emotional involvement? Visceral, immediate?  Can we expect that from a mere book, especially a Bad Book?  Usually that kind of thrill only comes from a rollercoaster ride.  King continues:

…only people who have worked in this field for some time understand how fragile this stuff really is, and what an amazing commitment it imposes on the reader of intellect or maturity …Disbelief isn’t light, it’s heavy… it takes a sophisticated and muscular intellectual act to believe, even for a little while, in Nyarlathotep, the Blind Faceless One, the Howler in the Night.  And whenever I run into someone who expresses a feeling along the lines of ‘I don’t read fantasy or go to any of those movies; none of it’s real,’ I feel a kind of sympathy.  They simply can’t lift the weight of fantasy.  The muscles of the imagination have grown too weak.[2]

He nails it: Bad Books require Good Readers, ones with strong stomachs and well-developed imaginative muscles.  When you hop that fence, you already have to have the Other in you, a psyche capable of groping into the shadows and meeting King’s prose halfway.  Instead of being savored, considered, deliberated, King’s novels (and other Horror) should be a fast read, thin-sliced, interpreted through rapid cognition, not reasoned thought. King’s not so much writing as inciting, and the global sales of his work suggest this technique has a significant cross-cultural impact.  There are definite, if guilty, pleasures in these texts, but Bad Books are like the juvenile delinquents they so often feature — they have to be handled right.

King has never been more popular.  He has two books out this Fall (Mile 81 and 11/22/63) and Jonathan Demme has already signed up to direct a film of the latter.  Despite some horrible screen adaptations, Hollywood keeps calling: Spielberg is producing a mini-series of Under The Dome for Showtime, the television portion of Ron Howard's epic Dark Tower adaptation is under consideration by HBO, and Warner Brothers are interested in getting Ben Affleck to direct The Stand. King must be doing something right to attract this kind of attention.  Unfortunately, he’s also blocking the view.

King’s dominance over the Horror genre means that other, subtler, thinner, better writers struggle to get heard.  His prodigious output never leaves a gap in the market, never leaves the casual reader hungering for more, in a different flavor. The moralistic, first person, bush-league style he’s made his own has spawned a slew of imitators because that’s what publishers want.  Little else gets shelf space.  And what happens when he stops writing? Will this aspect of pop culture claw out its own entrails and eat itself?

Bad Books aren’t going away any time soon, despite the efforts of parents, teachers, librarians and critics to keep us on the right side of the fence.  We have a deep, unsettling need for tales of mystery and imagination, but we don’t need them all to stem from the same source.  Stephen King is the gateway drug — cheap, plentiful, easy to obtain, ultimately unsatisfying — but there is so much else out there for the connoisseur, even the casual browser; popular fiction that thinks, challenges, provokes. Literary works that have languished in obscurity thanks to the dismissive ‘genre’ tag.

Readers, will you cling to King, or, over the next few months, will you allow me to get you hooked on the hard stuff?

________________________________________
[1] Danse Macabre (1981) p.120
[2] Ibid, p.121

Image of 11/22/63: A Novel
Author: Stephen King
Price: $21.40
Publisher: Scribner (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 849 pages
Image of Mile 81 (Kindle Single)
Manufacturer: Scribner
Part Number:
Price:
Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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Comments

Instag8r's picture
Instag8r from Residing in Parker, CO but originally from WV is reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy October 31, 2011 - 8:58am

I believe Jackie Collins has sold over 400 million books. No, I don't read the garbage she pumps out. I saw an interview with her a few months ago.

Collins Kelly's picture
Collins Kelly from a lot of states USA is reading filth on the bathroom wall October 31, 2011 - 10:29am

On Writing is cool.

EMA's picture
EMA from UK is reading Fool's Alphabet by Sebastian Faulks October 31, 2011 - 10:48am

I don't personally class King as purely a horror writer and I hate the way people often look down at him or his work. His were the first books I remember not being able to put down as a child. He may not have the eloquence of many literary writers but he is one of the best pure storytellers out there.

Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash October 31, 2011 - 10:52am

@Instag8r I can well believe that about Jackie Collins.  My entire school year group filled in the gaps from sex ed classes from The Stud and The Bitch back in the 80s - I think via the same two battered paperback copies that got passed round from hand to hand, and always fell open at the softcoriest bits.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson October 31, 2011 - 11:04am

Great first column, Karina.

The only non-Dark Tower King novel I've read is Dolores Clairborne, which probably wasn't the best place to start. One of these days, I want to read one of the bigguns. The Stand or The Shining or It.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson October 31, 2011 - 11:07am

Also, didn't King retire, for like, five seconds? Right before putting out a whole slew of new books?

Frederick's picture
Frederick from Southeast Connecticut is reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs By Chuck Klosterman October 31, 2011 - 11:57am

Well, I do now see King in a bit of a different light. Has it been proven (or almost at least) that other "authors" have written for him? I personally feel like this could very well be true.

The only opposing argument I have is that a lot of King's books were the first books I couldn't put down. EMA made a good point of this. In a way, King has probably helped many beginning readers become stronger and more experienced.

Collins Kelly, I am reading On Writing now and I am a fan.

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones October 31, 2011 - 12:34pm

The same things were said of Dickens during his lifetime and yet there's a massive number of accademics who've based their entire careers on studying him. Chances are King will be treated the same once he's gone.

.'s picture
. October 31, 2011 - 12:17pm

The Long Walk is my favorite King story by far besides the Dark Tower series.

Karen Stone's picture
Karen Stone from Woodend is reading 1Q84 October 31, 2011 - 12:38pm

I really enjoyed The Talisman (more fantasy than horror), but could not get past the first chapter of the Gunslinger - boring! - for me. But my son and husband love them. Carrie was the first horror movie I ever saw and was much scarier than the book at the time.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts October 31, 2011 - 1:23pm

I never really gave King much thought until I tired of the wordy bullshit literary crap that I ultimately decided was the opposite of what a good story is, so I came to King and found a great appreciation for his work. More accessible, more interesting, more entertaining, more emotionally charged.

lyndonriggall's picture
lyndonriggall from Tasmania is reading Going Bovine by Libba Bray October 31, 2011 - 1:44pm

Great article.  I don't feel like King is pushing out other writers though.  The idea that people won't read more than a couple of horror novels a year isn't necessarily true, and King does use his name to endorse the works of other writers (though he could always do it more).  The field is open to talent, and rather than King writing less, I think it's the job of the rest of us to produce really top-notch horror fiction that can't be ignored.  

Not easy, because of these stigmas.  But necessary.

peterpan's picture
peterpan October 31, 2011 - 2:37pm

PS:
Surprisely  King's name is Stephen which means Crown,so does he really need another crown?

David Welsh's picture
David Welsh from New Hampshire is reading The Shining October 31, 2011 - 4:28pm

I don't think King really gluts the market, only because I get sick of reading the same author too much. I read a lot of King in middle school, but I've only just now started reading his stuff again. Mostly re-reading so I can see the stories in a new light.

It's pretty crazy having read the Shining as a kid and reading it now as a married aspiring author. Totally different stories.

I think readers will always start with King, get sick of him eventually, and then read something new.

 

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. October 31, 2011 - 4:42pm

I have read king for many years and enjoyed his stuff but his last few books have been terrible. His son Joe Hill has become a better writer than him. I do wish more horror writers were allowed to shine in this genre but that is more the fault of narrowminded publishers than King.

EricMBacon's picture
EricMBacon from Vermont is reading The Autobiography of a Corpse October 31, 2011 - 7:54pm

I think that it is a big diservice to the novels and the readers to classify King as a horror writer or to say that his books are "bad." We live by these rules that make no sense. One is that quantity and quality are polar opposites, that the more that is produced, the quality goes down. This is not necessarily so. Another false notion is that literature is difficult and so anything that is easy or enjoyable is nearly as pornographic as advertizing. This is also so completely untrue. In the end, literature is what is relevant in one way or another, and what you get from a book is what you put into it as a reader. You can read the most idiotic novel, but if you can translate it into a critique on society, individuals, etc., than you received some value from it.

This is just my minor critique. I did enjoy the article, but I don't think that it should be that easy to call a book, genre, or writer "bad." Also, by saying that a bad book needs a good reader after King talks about the fantasy genre and the suspension of disbelief, you just equated fantasy to trash. I don't personally like fantasy, but your article starts out by sort of thumbing the notion that horror is anti-literature. For some, it is valid. 

Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash October 31, 2011 - 8:13pm

@EM Gray, that's why I refer to them as Bad Books, rather than bad books.  Bad Books deal with the dark side of human nature, in an often messy and non-literary way - they play by different rules that are often about putting story-telling above style, and they allow their characters to transgress against nature and the accepted order of things.  Everything about them is Breaking Bad, crossing the line between the representation of reality and venturing into warped fantasy. That's why Bad Books have such a following, and also why we're often warned away from them.

Lurid will take a look at a different aspect of these Bad Books every month (vampire romance is next), and I'll be asking readers to consider why the pleasures they represent are seen as guilty.

EricMBacon's picture
EricMBacon from Vermont is reading The Autobiography of a Corpse November 1, 2011 - 8:16pm

@Karina, that should be interesting. I took a college course on Vampires in Literature (and media in general). They teach anything nowadays. It was an interesting class.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 21, 2012 - 7:47pm

Not all of King's books are worth reading, but few really stink. I've read everything he's ever written, and I really enjoy his storytelling abilities. I don't find him long winded, and most of his books are hardly even straight "horror" anymore. I loved It, The Stand, The Shining, The Long Walk, The Dead Zone and the Dark Tower series, to name a few. He may not be the most poetic, lyrical author going, but he's not the lowest common denominator either.

Kit-Cindy Johnston- Davey's picture
Kit-Cindy Johns... February 13, 2012 - 7:08pm

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and The Long Walk are my favorites.

adamholwerda's picture
adamholwerda March 25, 2012 - 4:45pm

In 2006 I heard Orson Scott Card say something like "Stephen King will be the most studied writer of our century." 

Is it disingenuous to imply the man doesn't write his own books? Yes. Ask even a "literary" novelist if Stephen King is a hack and you'll get dirty looks. Kind of an insult to such a large body of work, wouldn't you say? Or were other people shooting Michael Jordan's shots?

As a writer who aspires to the best, I would love to have a writing career like King's, and have written the books he's written. There's a lot to learn there - you can write a bad book and still be responsible for a masterpiece like 11/22/63 or Hearts in Atlantis or The Green Mile.

This man is responsible for the greatest (and possibly the only one of its kind) modern American fantasy series ever written.

Has he written too many books? He'll stop when he dies, and I hope he never does. We're lucky to be able to read the greatest writer of our time as he writes - while you complain he's saturating the market. Why isn't this article about Twilight and every vampire concept clone?

And if you don't think he's a good enough writer to justify his popularity, maybe you just don't agree with this.

MichaelSipple's picture
MichaelSipple from Houston, Tx is reading Eat the Document March 25, 2012 - 5:53pm

I grew up on King. The Talisman was the first "big book" I had ever read and I credit King for teaching me to enjoy the act of sitting down to read for pleasure, when all around me I had alternative forms of entertainment, such as video games, TV, etc....I did those too of course. I don't like fences, or lines in the sand, and I think the whole argument about what is literary and "bad books" is something that should be shot and killed with fire. People enjoy what they enjoy, people write what they write. One week I'm reading Faulkner, the other I'm reading Lisey's story, which is my favorite King story other than the Dark Tower series, which I lump together as a single experience. I also don't believe that you can fault him for being more visible and successful than other horror writers. I've read other contemporary horror writers, and compared to King, in my opinion, they pale in comparison. To fault King for that is like blaming Tom Brady for racking up too many touchdowns and making your team look bad. Up your game or get off the field. Stephen King is good at what he does, and he does it frequently. I don't feel a need to hate on the guy. I also don't believe that if you were to wipe the market clean of all these "bad books" that people would suddenly begin to read and appreciate more "sophisticated" literary pieces. What will happen is reality TV ratings will sky rocket, and all of those "better books" will continue to haunt book shelves and warehouses the world over until the publishing industry completely shuns fiction in all its forms for non-fiction, which will continue to do well as a replacement for all of those readers of "bad books" that hate Reality TV as much as I do, and then I guess the movie industry will suck too since all they can do lately is convert novels into screenplays. 

I actually completely forgot what my point was. I think my mind has been destroyed by all my exposure to paperbacks...

Brian Hearn's picture
Brian Hearn March 25, 2012 - 7:44pm

Perhaps trashy journalism would be an appropriate response to this column.  Not too mention the disrespect from the photo-shopped picture to start with.  To suggest of rumors that Mr. King has ghost writers who write for him?  Please, do better research of the topic you are writing about.  Quite obvious to write with such ignorance about a living legend, would be to develop responses; therefore more readers.  Which is what I'm doing.  It is possible that Karina Wilson is still haunted by a Stephen King novel she may of read when she was young.  Maybe she is still scared after reading It; to go to bed at night without leaving a night light is impossible.  No worries, It frightened me too...

Certainly history proves that horror literature has influenced society in more ways than just a bad book, as the writer suggest.  Stephen King's admitted influences include the likes of the Torah books, Shakespeare, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Dickens.  All of whom have horror in their works; the study of not only good and evil, but the darkness that man is capable of as he struggles with pride, greed, envy, etcetera.  It is ironic that the greatest Christmas story ever told (which forever changed the way society celebrates the holiday) was a ghost story.  Horror is trash?  Will somebody please mail Karina Wilson a copy of A Christmas Carol?      

It seems that Karina Wilson has only read a few of Mr. King's work, if that.   His wide variety of stories consists of many different literary topics; such as The Body, Hearts in Atlantis, The Green Mile, and the recent 11/22/63. However, my all time favorite is Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.  Once adapted to the big screen, The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for an astounding seven Academy Awards.  The film adaptation is timeless, and occupies many top favorite lists, one of the greatest movies of all time.  And yes like always, the book is better.  Will somebody please mail Miss Wilson a copy of Different Seasons?         

Stephen King is arguably one of the greatest American writers to ever live.  Such as critics attacked Dickens during his time, so they do with King.  But for now, an impressive award lists and recognition speaks for itself: 2 American Library Association awards, several Bram Stoker awards, multiple Horror Guild awards, a Hugo Award, 5 Locus Awards, Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, a prestigious O. Henry Award, and a National Book Award / Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.  There are many others awards, the list is too long and still growing.  Thank you Stephen King.

 

            

Heidi Ash's picture
Heidi Ash from Dallas/Fort Worth area is reading 1Q84, Bloodfire Quest, Anathem March 26, 2012 - 7:06am

I guess at this point I'm a little confused about the focus of this column. The definition given is:

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading. 

When it comes to horror that would fit into this category, I thought we would be hearing about books like The Mountain King by Rick Hautala, Furnace by Muriel Gray, or maybe even The Jim-Jams by Michael Green. Bentley Little also has a few that would seem to fit this. For example, The Resort has some fairly disturbing episodes. And, I think that pretty much everything Richard Laymon has written fits this description, too. 

I just don't think that any of my coworkers would find it shocking that I was reading a Stephen King novel. And, most of the other posts have contained mainly books that are pretty mainstream at this point. 

Sorry, I guess I was just expecting something a little different here.

 

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books June 20, 2012 - 8:37pm

I don't understand the hate for King among the "literary" crowd. Does popularity make your writing less than? Sure, there are technical "issues" in his writing, just like in anyone else's, but there are bright spots of brilliance in his writing as well. No one can craft a character like King can--often, the "horror" is secondary to the connection the reader has with the characters King has created.

I understand saying "Stephen King isn't my bag" but the look-down-the-nose of it all just turns me off--especially in this context "You like Stephen King? Okay, well...he sucks. Let me show you the good stuff." Horror hipsters? Really?

Alan Alencar's picture
Alan Alencar June 30, 2012 - 12:29pm

Lately I've been seen too much people saying that writing horror, making horror movies is a waste of time, and sometimes is a waste of talent. That it is trash, they say. Trash? Do you think Bram Stoker's Dracula is trash? Just because something is popular and or disturbing doesn't mean that is bad. But they keeping saying that horror isn't good fiction and isn't even literature. They talk shit about Stephen King -- still --, and I know why, he came from poverty, that's why, if you were poor you can't become member of the select group of "real writers". So Cormac McCarthy is trash too? He write some really disturbing and violent stuff, so William Faulkner is trash too, because he wrote Sanctuary -- a story about rape. José Saramago Nobel Prize winner wrote provocative and disturbing things, is he trash? I don't think so... There'll always be writers doing bad writing, in all genres, but you can put a whole genre in the bin just because have some bad writers doing it. You'll put the whole Gothic Romance genre in the bin because of Twilight?

Adrian Warren's picture
Adrian Warren August 24, 2012 - 10:30am

Horror, particularly good horror, tends to be extremely allegorical and metaphorical. It is a way to view and discuss taboo topics without REALLY discussing them. That is the reason so many literary writers of the past would dip into the horror genre for a book or two; to discuss issues that they couldn't discuss openly. "The Great God Pan" by Machen, "Frankenstein" , "Dracula" , "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", and "The Yellow Wallpaper" are all famous horror stories that peek behind the curtains of social mores of their day to talk about something they could not discuss openly.

Natso's picture
Natso from Mongolia is reading Moby Dick December 8, 2013 - 9:36pm

I hope to Tenger that King didn't hire ghostwriters. Coz that would let down a lot of young writers that look up to him.

I've read that the reason King came up with pseudonym Bachman was because he was afraid that his name would "saturate the market and cheapen his name".

I've read Under the Dome, Night Shift, and slew of novellas and short stories here and there, the only story I thought was overrated was-- okay, not all his stories are to be read with high expections-- "Harvey's Dream".

An acquaintance from Maine recently told me that Stephen King was schizophrenic. I googled it and lo, and behold, there IS a speculation about it due to his way of speech and prolific output. 

Tina Holyoake's picture
Tina Holyoake from California December 11, 2013 - 3:24pm

I love Stephen King and his books have led me to other authors and their books.  Any author that can set my brain thinking & imagining is wonderful. Any book that can take me somewhere else in my mind is awesome!  I can't stand snobby literary people who don't like King.