With Halloween nearly upon the non-Jewish world (its one of the few secular Western holidays which is essentially non-existent in Israel, presumably because its pagan roots are so blatantly obvious and so obviously foreign) I was drawn to this blog post by a fellow who doesn't particularly care for Stephen King. He seems conflicted about trying to explain why, since he adores the horror genre and appreciates King's often spirited defense thereof. I have to admit to being somewhat sympathetic. I also love the horror genre (at least, the best of the genre) and I believe it contains, in Poe and Lovecraft, two of the greatest and most consistently underrated modern writers. Nonetheless, I have to take an event less generous attitude towards the aforementioned King. The truth is, he is a terrible writer; and possibly the worst thing that ever happened to the horror genre.
In purely financial terms, this is obviously untrue. If King has accomplished anything, he's brought the horror genre out of the remainder bins and the pulp magazines and put it on the bestseller lists. Through the numerous adaptations of his work, he's also made horror cinema something more than a cult subset of genre cinema and turned it into blockbuster material. In the process, however, he has written some of the worst horror fiction of the 20th century.
When one says such things, it behooves one to be charitable at the outset. Not all of King's work is heinously bad. Some of his short stories (especially the early ones) are surprisingly brilliant, and are both genuinely frightening and stylistically interesting. The early collection Night Shift, in particular, contains some hidden gems, such as the hallucinogenic and marvelously manipulative "Strawberry Spring." His novels, however, and they have grown worse as he gets older, are barely readable, and reading them is often akin to literary root canal.
There are several reasons for this, one of them being King's godawful prose style. With the exception of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, he writes the most excruciating prose in the English language today. Replete with meaningless clichés, belabored pop cultural references, desperate attempts to transcribe the vernacular, and a clumsy syntax which attempts to emulate interior thought processes through the redolent use of italics; reading King is one of those distinctly unhappy experiences in which the reader gets the rare sense that the author is not only dumber than he is, but isn't even trying to prove otherwise.
This shortcoming of King’s becomes particularly egregious when one considers his predecessors. Poe, for instance, created a prose style so original that he inspired, beginning with Baudelaire, an entire generation of French poets. Lovecraft’s pseudo-archaic style is equally unique; and in the moments of horror, Lovecraft’s torrents of rapturously heinous adjectives are so overwhelmingly terrifying that one barely breathes at the climax of his tales. To a great extent, the freedom that genre bequeaths to its practitioners allows them to anticipate innovations and perversions which mainstream writers will not achieve for decades to come. King, on the other hand, is not only pedestrian, but consciously and aggressively so. As such, he abrogates the one quality that makes genre literature so important and so bracingly original: because it is marginal, it is also liberated. King, I fear to say, is literature in chains of its own making.
To be charitable, however, King does have his virtues. As a friend of mine, and an ardent King fan, once put it; the man spins a great yarn; a quality often cited by his fans against his detractors. There is no doubt that it is sometimes difficult to put down a Stephen King book once one has started it. There is also no doubt, however, that it is sometimes difficult to pick up a Stephen King book once one is halfway through. The primary reason for this, in my opinion, is King’s insistence on character; an indication of his deference to conventional literary norms as well as, perhaps, a hint that he is not nearly as dedicated to his genre as he pretends.
The question of character is one of those literary phenomena which is accepted without thinking by most readers and most critics. Any great novel, it is assumed, must have good characters. In fact, character, or rather too much of it, is a dangerous thing, and should be dealt with cautiously by any writer; all the more so, in fact, when the literature in question is genre literature. And most especially, I think, in the horror genre.
The reason for this is that the horror genre is not about character. The horror genre is about fear. If it becomes about anything else; it becomes diluted, formless, and impotent. Consider, for instance, the shining light of the genre, Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” There are, for all intents and purposes, no characters in the story. Or, more precisely, there is a complete lack of characterization. The only named character in the story, Prince Prospero, is drawn in the sketchiest terms. We know nothing of his background, his psychological makeup, his possibly unhappy childhood, etc. We do not know this because we do not need to know this; and because were Poe to include it, it would turn his horror into banality. The truth is, it does not matter who Prince Prospero is or what he does, beyond his brief and desperate actions on the night in question. What is important, to Poe and to all the great practitioners of the genre, is, appropriately, horror; and the topography of horror, the architecture in which horror takes place. Poe’s primary concern in this story, as in most of his other masterworks, is the setting, the multi-colored rooms, the plague-ridden princedom, the macabre costumes of the doomed revelers, the clock inexorably counting down to the dark hour when darkness and decay and the Red Death will hold illimitable dominion over all. Poe understood, as did Lovecraft after him, that to impute character into horror would suffocate the horror itself. The lack of characterization allows the horror to breath; it allows fear to swell into the empty spaces of the tale, infusing it with the raw experience of terror. It is the violence of this immediacy that gives the horror genre its extraordinary power; without it, it is nothing more than macabre puppetry.
King, I fear to say, is the ultimate practitioner of such puppetry. He does have talent for the topography of horror. Whether it is the haunted townships of Castle Rock and Jerusalem’s Lot, or the hotel of horrors in The Shining; but these dark spaces are brightly lit by their egregious interlopers. King’s usual character, a dysfunctional writer grappling with his psychological demons through his experience of horror, is not only uninteresting; he is an obstacle to the true experience of fear. Obsessed as he is with alcoholism, loneliness, childhood traumas, and all the other banal neuroses of middle-class America; King seems perennially unable to simply allow the horror to do its job. The result, unfortunately, is that King’s novels are gripping until the moment they are put down or finished; afterwards, they disappear entirely, as though they never existed. The great ones, Poe and Lovecraft among them, grow more portentous and more horrifying in the recollection of them; and there are few indeed who will shake off Poe’s final image of the castle of corpses, presided over only by the omniscient hand of the final conqueror; or Lovecraft’s heinous revelations of other beings from the depths of infinity itself.
King, on the other hand, is instantly forgettable, not because we do not care about his characters, but because we do not care about his horror. The reason for this may be that King does not truly care about his horror either. His clumsy attempts at depth of character, psychological insight, and even the odd political theme, indicate an author deeply ambivalent about the virtues of his own genre, and a (barely) suppressed desire for mainstream respectability. This is perhaps, the secret to King’s extraordinary success, as well as his ultimate inability to escape mediocrity.