The Books Stephen King Hasn’t Written Yet, But Should
Stephen King has his faults as a writer—this is the man who gave the world a book where people literally shit aliens—but the one accusation you can't lay at his door is that he doesn't write enough. The King opus runs to 54 novels, 5 works of non-fiction and more short stories than you can shake a crucifix at. But even so, a careful assessment of his bibliography suggests some gaps remain to be filled. King still has a few years left before he hangs up his pen. Here are some suggestions on how he might fill that time.
Until 2013, King had steered clear of sequels, prequels or any-other-kind-of-quels, but the publication of Doctor Sleep, which follows the story of Danny Torrance, survivor of the Daddy-gone-bad mayhem of The Shining, popped his –quel cherry, so to speak and paved the way for more, begging important questions about which other of his books might support a continuation.
One of King's greatest strengths as an author is in the creation of characters we truly care about and, for me, the novel which achieves this best is The Stand. Despite its quasi-religious themes and clichéd casting of a saintly black person as the Force for Good (along with the clichéd casting of a saintly deaf person as Sacrificial Victim), The Stand…erm…stands out in the canon for its almost pitch perfect capturing of ordinary people in the grips of extraordinary events. From the taciturn Texan Stu Redmond, to the entitled musician Larry Underwood by way of strong-willed, stubborn Fran Goldsmith and doomed Nadine Cross, King gives us fictional people so real you could swear you just bumped shoulders with them in the morning Starbucks coffee queue. Although The Stand ends on a suitably peaceful note, with the human race again beginning to prosper and the Forces of Evil thoroughly annihilated, King also produces a villain of such Teflon-coated durability in the form of Randall Flagg that one can't help feeling that Flagg isn't going to stay annihilated for very long. Flagg deserves a second chance at causing the Apocalypse—there are people to crucify, babies to eat—and a few decades after the first show down, Stu and Fran and the others will have produced a second or even third generation of ordinary people who, as well as coping with the challenges of regrowing civilization from the bottom up, need to be tested by extraordinary events. Think of the potential—small bands of colonists, bears, wolves, splinter groups, harsh winters and Flagg beginning his mischief again—and your mouth starts to water with what King could do here.
Spool the tape back all the way to the beginning and you have King's massively successful debut (not for him the more usual career of writing four or five moderately-successful works before hitting the big time). Carrie took the world by storm—mega sales and three movie adaptations (if you don't count 1999's The Rage: Carrie 2) and King was off and running. His next few books were on a grander scale: all good but none quite achieving the haunting intimacy of his first novel and its lonely, vengeful heroine. While Carrie herself has to stay where King left her—well buried—his teasing conclusion to the novel, given in the form of a letter from one of Carrie's relatives, leaves the door wide open for a second bite at the psychokinetic cherry. You could say that there's no other possible conclusion to that kind of story which would outmatch the one King gives us in the original, but actually wouldn't that be the kind of challenge a writer of his talents would relish?
If we all want to know what happens after a King story ends, we also sometimes wonder what happened before it even started. King is good at filling in the back histories of his characters—in fact he prefers to fill out his people that way than by the more traditional methods of physical descriptors—and some of those narratives are tantalizing enough that you can see how they might form books in their own right.
Poll position here would have to go to Annie Wilkes, star of King's 1987 novel Misery. Trapped in Wilkes's home, writer Paul Sheldon manages to uncover his captor's past life as a nurse, one with a radical approach to healing which involves treating her patients to massive overdoses of morphine. Yes, Wilkes is a serial killer, an idea which brings with it scads of opportunity to investigate just how she got that way and all the other things she might have done before fetching up in her remote Colorado farm.
Forgetting the human element for a moment, the other King-creation whose back story intrigues is the town of Salem's Lot, setting for the eponymously titled Salem's Lot, published in 1975. King's towns often take on the role of characters in his fiction—he's brilliantly capable of conjuring up small communities which have a flavor and personality all their own. Jerusalem's Lot, which King once claimed was inspired by an apocryphal tale he once heard about a Vermont town mysteriously deserted by the obscure religious sect that founded it, is exactly the kind of place which ought to have an interesting past. The trouble in Salem's Lot begins with the arrival of The Master, but what about before that? Some places just seem to attract trouble and Salem's Lot seems tailor made to be one of them. Mr. King should write about that trouble. In much detail. And soon.
Speaking of the past, one dimension left relatively untouched by King is the historical. He prefers a modern-day setting for his fiction, occasionally venturing back a little way, but rarely further than the decades encompassed by his own lifetime. I'm guessing that part of the reason for that is that King's signature style (and the reason for much of his success) depends upon an ease with a vernacular of the day. From what is playing on the radio, to the right flavor of gum, King brings his work to life with the small details which precisely nail the period in question.
Setting a book beyond this comfort zone of the recent past would be a risk for King, but opens up realms of possibilities. Some of the finest horror fiction dates from the Victorian era, to the extent that this is a point in time now embedded in our cultural consciousness as Spooky—full of houses with pointy roofs, echoing sepulchers, cobwebbed tomes and unpleasantly rustly things in corners. King is no stranger to unpleasant rustly things, but instead of updating the classics for an age of Converse sneakers and baseball cards, as he did with Dracula and Salem's Lot, why not go straight to the mother lode and set a novel in days of top hats and antimacassars? Think M.R. James with larger monsters (everything in the US is larger). He couldn't lose.
King has dabbled in science fiction, concentrating mainly on variations on the 'It Came from Outer Space' theme in which various aliens (all brimful of menace) impose themselves on a hapless human population. This is where the alien-as-bowel-movement comes in and we can safely say that—barring his short fiction which contains several stories with a Twilight Zone-alternate-Universe vibe—these books don't represent King's finest work. But that doesn't mean that King and sci-fi can't succeed. It just means he might not have found the right kind of sci-fi for his talents.
With King, the aliens always come to us and never the other way around. His characters don't explore strange new worlds, unless said worlds happen to find themselves in small town New England after a spot of top secret scientific military research goes tits up and opens a portal between Universes. No one sets foot on a space craft or orbits the Orion nebula or ends up marooned in the outer reaches of the Milky Way with nothing to eat but a tin of Cream of Tomato and their crewmates. I get that King isn't a hard sci-fi man—his interest in tech seems to start and end with large, shiny motor vehicles—but a little research would soon deal with that and as further encouragement, I would just mention that while on Earth you can't have too many alien-monster-things without stretching the reader's credulity, on other planets the number of alien-monster-things is potentially limitless.
The Right Out There
Many artists reaching the end of their career experience the need to try something completely new. A certain ennui sets in, a feeling that awards and prizes simply don't mean as much as they used to, that massive creative success has become just a little too easy, a little undemanding and that what might be needed is a fresh and exciting challenge. I don't know if King ever starts on an outline and is overwhelmed with boredom at the idea of yet another monster hiding at the bottom of the crypt, but if he does, there's a whole world of alternative genres out there, ripe for the plucking, ready to be transformed by the King touch.
Take erotica for example, newly respectable after 50 Shades of Grey not only revived sales of riding crops but also rescued single-handedly the economy of the Western world. King flirted with naughty sex in Gerald's Game, but revealed a puritan streak by contriving a plot where being handcuffed to a bed led not to juddering orgasms but instead to imminent death from thirst and hunger. He had another go in time travel epic 11/22/63 and ended up with a nomination for a Bad Sex Award. Clearly there is work to be done here. A whole book of monster-based sexy shenanigans would give him the opportunity to hone an element of his writing skills which currently lacks an edge (there are courses, right here on the site, if he wants to practice first). King has perfected the art of writing fiction in which everyone gets killed and eaten. Now all he needs to do is perfect the art of writing fiction in which everyone has sex, then gets killed and eaten. Nothing could be simpler.
If erotica doesn't appeal, the other big selling genre King hasn't yet attempted is Young Adult (I'm leaving romance out of the picture, because King demonstrated his aptitude for this with the book within a book conceit of Misery). You could say Christine represents his contribution to the canon, but although this 1983 novel contained many of the right themes—High School crushes, nerdy kids, love triangles, killer cars—it's all written from the perspective of an adult looking back on his younger self, a trope which is anathema to the intensely-lived here-and-now ethos of teen romance. Think of King giving John Green a run for his money with a YA where the protagonists not only have to battle geekdom and life threatening illnesses but also that thing that lives under the floorboards of the school gym. Ooh, I've given myself goosepimples.
But hey, these are only my ideas. What do you think? If we get enough suggestions we could feed them back to the man himself, via Twitter.
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