Stephen King King, Stephen (Vol. 12) - Essay

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen King 1947–

American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. King is primarily known for his modern Gothic novels in which supernatural disturbances reflect psychological or moral problems, as in Carrie and The Shining. Critics praise King as a stylist whose characterizations are much better than those that are generally found in Gothic suspense novels. He is criticized, however, for lack of originality in plot and for being derivative in a field that too easily lends itself to imitation and cliché. King treats horror fiction as a serious outgrowth of mainstream fiction. As he says, "Fear and death are two of the human constants. But only the writer of horror and the supernatural gives the reader such an opportunity for total identification and catharsis…." King's work is a hybrid, utilizing the styles of both the traditional horror tale, as practiced by Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker, and the modern commercial thriller which utilizes phenomena such as parapsychology and ESP. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64, and Something about the Author, Vol. 9.)

[Salem's Lot is a] super-exorcism that leaves the taste of somebody else's blood in your mouth and what a bad taste it is. King presents us with the riddle of a small Maine town that has been deserted overnight…. Vampirism, necrophilia, et dreadful alia rather overplayed by the author of Carrie…. (p. 935)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1975 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), August 15, 1975.

Elizabeth Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Poltergeists, psychokinesis (called telekinesis or TK in this book), and religious fundamentalism mix to produce Carrie …, Stephen King's novel that probably holds the record for the number of deaths perpetrated within its covers by a single adolescent. Sin, sex, and the unpopularity of an adolescent girl endowed with TK begin to come together when the naive Carrie is shocked by the sudden onset of her first menstrual period. The fatal results indicate the value of sex education. (p. 76)

Elizabeth Hall, in Psychology Today (copyright © 1975 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), September, 1975.

Walter Bobbie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen King's 'salem's Lot (Jerusalem's Lot) is a novel of such chilling beginnings that we look forward to losing sleep over it…. It is the kind of goose bump fiction that makes grown men afraid of the dark.

It is to Stephen King's credit as a stylist that he has charmed us into such familiar territory. Sparing the endless atmospheric creaks and cobwebs and cupolas of this New England landscape, he thrusts us into the private terror of his characters. A wise choice. An equally familiar assortment of types achieves a personal dimension and life's blood that grounds us. King gives this stock company a contemporary resonance and wit. Instead of stalking among their dusty antiques, he lets us peek into their souls.

It is here that the writer proves a master of this genre. He juggles character vignettes into a structural crossfire that is hypnotic. A thousand detailed portraits become the broad canvas of 'salem's Lot.

Unfortunately, we mystery fans are an odd lot, opting for a good story over a well-written one any night of the week…. And it is here, ultimately, that 'salem's Lot disappoints. No one minds a good retelling of an old legend when there is a new finale. But the final confrontation is labored, obvious, and familiar. King has added nothing new to this legend…. (p. 304)

Walter Bobbie, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1976 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), January, 1976.

Jack Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To say that Stephen King is not an elegant writer … is putting it mildly. But inelegance is not precisely the problem in "The Shining."… [In] "The Shining," memories and fantasies often find themselves pretentiously enclosed in parentheses. Sometimes non-punctuation or italics are used—quite arbitrarily—for gimmicky stream of consciousness effect. Occasionally we are subjected to all capitals in parentheses with triple exclamation points (!!! ON BOTH MARGINS !!!)! This is Mr. King's way of being climactic….

Mr. King lifts images and plot fragments from books (Poe, Blackwood, Lovecraft) and films ("Diabolique," "Psycho," "Village of the Damned") as if his characters and readers are indeed noticing them "for the first time."

Occasionally Mr. King seems aware of his triteness, but instead of playing the awareness for laughs, he offers apologies. In one scene, a character has an epiphany over a wasps' nest: "He felt that he had unwittingly stuck his hand into The Great Wasps' Nest of Life. As an image it stank. As a cameo of reality, he felt it was serviceable." Like an admission of guilt, the apology only makes things worse….

To be sure, "The Shining" does have its chilling moments. There is a bathtub apparition that, though derivative, is wonderfully frightening. And there are others, though the hyperbole and stylistic fumblings make an equal number unintentionally funny.

H. P. Lovecraft once remarked that "atmosphere is the all-important thing" in this genre. A compelling atmosphere can make us forget the clichés. But since atmosphere is so much a function of style—which Mr. King hasn't developed yet—the clichés in "The Shining" stand out in ghoulish, jeering relief. (p. 8)

Jack Sullivan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 20, 1977.

Frederick Patten

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Shining] has flaws, some minor and some serious….

But when all's said, the novel works! It makes one tremble in anticipation of the day when King gets it all together and writes a 'perfect' book…. King's style … is his most obvious fault. It's all good writing, it's all pertinent, but it goes on and on…. Setting a realistic scene and creating believably complex characters are laudable traits, but King seriously overdoes it.

King builds his mood slowly, at first establishing the idyllic setting of the peaceful old Overlook…. Minor ominous incidents occur at intervals between lengthy flashbacks to Jack's and Wendy's youth, showing the childhoods that molded their personalities. Gradually the story stabilizes in the present as the hallucinations become more vicious, and the Torrances are increasingly hard-pressed to rationalize them as imaginary….

King continues to add … detail, building upon minor incidents, filling in a mosaic of horror which has unsuspected depths….

There's [another] annoyance that's obvious …, King does not portray Danny as a five-year-old child. He's too mature; he seems nine or ten at least. Even granting that a telepathic boy might be emotionally older than his peers, it's important for plot reasons that Danny be no more than five. Whenever King switched to a lengthy scene with the boy, the story suddenly became less...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

W. H. Lyles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most [of the stories of Night Shift] could be classified as "horror stories," yet they lack the true horror of Henry Kuttner …, the obsessiveness of H. P. Lovecraft, the variety of Richard Matheson, the humor of John Collier, the richness of Ray Bradbury. But all the stories are competently done, some ("The Mangler," "Quitters, Inc.") much above that. (p. 385)

W. H. Lyles, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, February 1, 1978; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), February 1, 1978.

Michael Mewshaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some of [Stephen King's plots in his short story collection "Night Shift"] are … imaginative, even ingenious. (p. 13)

But it seems not to have occurred to Mr. King that style is crucial to story, as are characterization and theme. His own characters seldom serve any purpose save as ballast for his bizarre plots…. His worst stories strain mightily to generate one last frisson, using twist endings that should have died with O. Henry, the hoariest clichés of the horror-tale subgenre ("I was shaking in my shoes") and lines that provoke smiles rather than terror…. It's baffling to think that anybody might find these stories fascinating or frightening…. (pp. 13, 23)

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 26, 1978.

Bill Crider

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The stories of Night Shift] all begin in our normal world, where everything is safe and warm. But in almost every instance, something slips, and we find ourselves in the nightmare world of the not-quite real. (p. 6)

Such stories require a willing suspension of disbelief, of course, but they also require an author who is an expert manipulator, one who can make horror seem not only plausible but almost logical. King is an expert, and many of these stories will not be easily forgotten…. Perhaps ["The Mangler"] is the best example of King's skill at what he does. The idea of a steam ironer possessed by a demon seems laughable, but no one who reads "The Mangler" is going to laugh for very long. (pp. 6-7)

Bill Crider, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), April, 1978.

Striking a far less hysterical tone than in The Shining, King has written his most sweeping horror novel in The Stand, though it may lack the spinal jingles of 'Salem's Lot. In part this is because The Stand, with its flow of hundreds of brand-name products, is a kind of inventory of American culture. "Superflu" has hit the U.S. and the world…. Immunity seems to be a gift from God—or the Devil…. Good and Evil come to an atomic clash at the climax, the Book of Revelations working itself out rather too explicitly. But more importantly, there are memorable scenes of the superflu spreading hideously…. Some King fans will be put off by the pretensions here; most will embrace them along with the earthier chills. (pp. 965-66)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1978 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), September 1, 1978.

Marc Laidlaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The haunted hotel [of The Shining] is a stock sort of device, left over from the days when people were still writing straight ghost stories. The struggling family offers the pathos that no doubt is in part responsible for the book's popularity—real characters, beautifully handled for the most part, though some of the development toward the end is a bit too hasty. Even the child with the "gift" is a common theme of Stephen King's…. But herein they are combined, redeveloped, slowly woven into a dark, unfamiliar tapestry—something dreadful and inevitable and ultimately terrifying….

King's creation of atmosphere is masterful—the first irrational hint I had that anything unusual might happen terrified me as fully as the later, more logically-constructed episodes. In fact, where the novel falls short is in the fact that the conclusion is not nearly as frightening as the mood that has been predicting it. King takes the stance that he should give the reader a hint of the ultimate horror early in the game, and then—when they're sure to be afraid that it's actually going to happen—give them exactly what they've been nervously waiting for. It's a technique that works rather well, though in this case the intimations of doom are more frightening than the doom itself. (p. 34)

Marc Laidlaw, in Nyctalops (copyright © 1978 by Harry O. Morris, Jr. and Edward P. Berglund; reprinted by permission of Marc Laidlaw), Vol. 2, No. 7, 1978.

Deadly disease running rampant over the countryside is a natural subject for horror stories; King is a natural teller of such tales…. [The Stand] elicits fear and dread as completely as he has in previous works …, [and] the suspense is underlaid with questions concerning good and evil in human nature. (p. 601)

Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1978 by the American Library Association), December 1, 1978.

Anne Collins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1980, America dies for its sins (pollution of both landscape and spirit) in a shifting antigen plague leaked from some cavern of government-sponsored biological warfare. But the purge leaves certain issues of good and evil unresolved. In The Stand, Stephen King divides the survivors up like tiddledywinks into two camps, one devoted to good …, the other to the devil. Will it be Walden III or the Fourth Reich? In the panorama of mass disaster—and with such moral freight to consider—King loses his characterizations … in a clutter of place-names and products….

[The] devil (otherwise known as Randall Flagg, an agent provocateur out of the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil) successfully raises hairs on the arms. The prose flows well, describing multiple plague deaths, swollen corpses, and the rantings of idiot savants…. But The Stand is not a horror story like King's Carrie or The Shining, and that's why it ultimately bores. Horror lies in that area where known becomes unknown, where ordinary turns menacing.

Too much of King's new book deals with a little leaguer's vision of American democracy somehow smiling through apocalypse; good and evil are set up like so many kindergarten blocks. Bad is Las Vegas where those survivors who sell their souls gather; good is Boulder, Colorado, and the American constitution. Similar equations act like dry rot on the plot.

Anne Collins, "No Sympathy for the Devil," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1978 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), December 18, 1978, p. 51.

J. Justin Gustainis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen King has been writing very good and very scary novels and short stories for a number of years now. The Stand is something of a departure for him. This is not to suggest that it is not good, or, in its own way, scary. But the word which best describes it is one not heard much today outside of English classrooms: epic. Another word should also be resurrected too, this one out of the dusty tomes of Biblical scholarship: apocalyptic….

[He sets the stage] for a conflict, and in reference to that struggle one could dig up one more of those rarely used old words: Armageddon.

Stephen King is a masterful writer…. (p. 378)

J. Justin Gustainis, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), March, 1979.