Stephen King King, Stephen (Vol. 26) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen King 1947–

American novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

King is primarily known for his modern Gothic novels in which supernatural events reflect psychological disturbances or moral problems. Critics praise King's ability to present aspects of American culture and vernacular. However, some feel that he is derivative in a field that too easily lends itself to imitation and cliché. King's work is a hybridization of the traditional horror tale, as written by Edgar Allan Poe, and the modern thriller, which capitalizes on trendy concerns such as parapsychology, telekinesis, and ESP.

King wrote his first novel, the popular culture classic Carrie, in 1974. Since then he has produced seven novels, two collections of short stories, an autobiography, and a screenplay. Among his recent novels is The Dead Zone, a thriller dealing with paranormal psychology. Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas, is King's bid for recognition as a more serious writer. Another recent addition to the King canon is the novel Christine, a tale of horror about a boy and his vintage car.

(See also CLC, Vol. 12; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Something about the Author, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

John Gault

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] arrival of a new Stephen King novel is something of an event: a minor event, perhaps, but still an event. And even when that novel is less than totally satisfying, as is the case with The Dead Zone, it is only slightly less.

King, who explored psychokinesis in Carrie, vampirism in Salem's Lot, mediumship and places of evil in The Shining, applies his considerable writing skills to psychometry (not the science, but the paranormal phenomena) in The Dead Zone. His hero, John Smith—a name choice more playful than profound—awakes from a 4 1/2-year coma with the ability to fully "know" people's present and future circumstances just by touching them or an object they have touched. This skill, in the hands—literally—of good, decent and affable Smith, becomes progressively more curse than blessing, and leads to a final confrontation with a corrupt and dangerous politician whose future Smith knows and deeply fears.

There are two fundamental problems with The Dead Zone: the first is that it is really a meshing (or perhaps overlapping) of two novellas, suggesting that King did not have enough material for one full-length hard-cover novel. Too much of this book is spent demonstrating Smith's strange ability and agonizing over it. The second is that we have come to expect more from Stephen King; if this is unfair, so be it, but the fact remains that his earlier work is still his best work. And he is, after all, the acknowledged contemporary master of the horror/supernatural genre. It follows then that each new novel be judged accordingly.

In defence of The Dead Zone and King, it is a good read; in fact, it is a very good read, not impossible to put down, but putting it down is not something one does willingly. It more than meets the two criteria that King set forth for his kind of book in The New York Times Book Review a couple of years ago: it is "accessible" and it is rendered with "honest intent."

John Gault, "Not Quite Fright," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1979 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 93, No. 39, September 24, 1979, p. 56.

Alex E. Alexander

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To be sure, [Carrie] is a special kind of fairy tale: it is an adult fairy tale explicit in matters of sex, killing and revenge, and if the young appreciate it, it may be because their tastes have grown ahead of their chronological age. But Carrie is nevertheless a fairy tale: rites de passage, supernatural powers, magic and rites of sacrifice. Since fairy tales feed on such themes, the folktale opus is quite similar the world over. But Carrie, made into a highly popular movie, and thus rendered into a series of images, largely does away with the one unshakable source of ethnicity in folklore, namely the language of the people. The film medium as well as the inexpensive translations into many languages made by the industry of successful paperbacks assure Carrie of a wide, international diffusion and turn it into the new universal fairy tale.

The German romantic poet Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), once said: "deeper meaning lies in the fairy tale of my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life." (p. 282)

The fairy tale … suggests, implies, hints about significant problems facing the child, and does so through imagery rather than discourse. In Brothers Grimm's "Little Snow White," we read:

(The Queen) whilst she was sewing and looking out the window, at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow…. Soon thereafter she had a little girl, who was as white as snow, and as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony; the child was therefore called Little Snow White. And when the child was born the Queen died.

What follows is the appearance of the cruel stepmother and the conflict between the two…. The stepmother looks into the mirror and says, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" only to discover that now Snow White outshines her in beauty. She decides to destroy the rival. But are we not dealing in this fairy tale with a deeper meaning covertly presented as magic? Could not the drop of blood in the snow be menstrual blood signifying Snow White's coming of age and thus leading to mother-daughter rivalry? In the child's mind the mother in her role of a rival becomes an evil stepmother. In another fairy tale from the Grimm collection, "The Goose-Girl," the blood and a girl's sexual maturation are tied together even closer. In this tale a queen sends her daughter to her betrothed, "to a prince who lived a great distance." Along with many objects which would seem to fit a dowry, the mother gives her daughter something rather curious: a blood stained handkerchief…. (pp. 282-83)

Unless we are willing to seek a deeper meaning in this story, "The Goose-Girl" becomes rather senseless. On a rational plane, the gift of a handkerchief with three drops of blood has precious little meaning. But the blood-stained piece of cloth clearly suggests maturation demonstrated by the menstrual cycle; this is all the more obvious since the girl having received the blood-stained handkerchief departs to marry. But the goose-girl refuses to grow up. She drops the handkerchief. Still, with the help of the old king, a father figure, she reaches maturity and is ready for marriage.

Thus the fairy tale imagery catalyzes fantasies about social and sexual anxieties. By identifying with the fairy tale hero, the child meets these anxieties head on, lives through them. At the end of the fairy tale, the child experiences not only moral edification, but also a sense of catharsis for having lived through an often frightful experience…. Hence the mass appeal of the fairy tale: it is edifying, it is entertaining and it is consoling—one needs not be overly fearful, things will always turn all right; the fairy tale answers the child's psychic needs.

Stephen King too reserves a deeper, subtextual meaning for Carrie, when he states on the very first page of his novel: "Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level, where savage things grow." (p. 283)

Carrie begins with Carrie White's first period. Unlike the fairy tale, the flow of menses is made here quite explicit. The opening scene of the book takes place in the school shower room. There, Carrie's schoolmates in a "hoarse, uninhibited abandon" shout "Period, Period!" and "Plug it up!", as Carrie White is experiencing her first menstrual cycle: "The blood was dark, and flowing with terrible heaviness. Both of Carrie's legs were smeared and splattered with it, as though she had waded through a river of blood."

[Sigmund] Freud once observed that ever since the menstrual flow ceased to function as an olfactory attraction between the male and female of the species …, the menstrual cycle became an activity both feared and abhorred. Anthropological studies well complement Freud in this respect. Joseph Campbell notes, for example, that among the primitive tribes girls in their first period are placed in isolated huts where they remain secluded for the duration of the menstrual flow. This, one should think, to impress upon them the significance of the rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood, and also to stress the privacy of the act. Carrie, therefore, is guilty of breaking a taboo by displaying her menses in public. But her schoolmates are guilty too. For it is the duty of those who know to instruct those who are coming of age. It must be noted that Carrie has her first period at sixteen; thus unusually late. All her classmates are, therefore, well initiated into womanhood. But rather than help, they merely give vent to their disgust and abhorrence. Only one girl in the group, Susan Snell, assumes...

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John Brosnahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A master of psychic terror returns with [Firestarter], yet another study of strange phenomena guaranteed to enthrall his audience. Two college students sign up as paid guinea pigs for a secret and unknowingly dangerous government experiment in telekinesis…. When the subjects marry and have a baby, however, their child develops not only telekinesis but pyrokinesis as well; in short, the tot can not only push things with her mind, but set them ablaze as well. The government's plan to use the girl as a human weapon set King's plot into action, and an extended chase ensues with the expected havoc wreaked in vivid detail. King's highly visual style, almost akin to Hollywood special effects, sends the blood splattering, the flesh ripping, and the bodies flying in particularly gruesome fashion.

John Brosnahan, in his review of "Firestarter," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1980 by the American Library Association), Vol. 76, No. 20, June 15, 1980, p. 1464.

Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Firestarter is an] improvement over The Dead Zone, with King returning to his most tried-and-true blueprint. As in The Shining, the psi-carrier is a child, an eight-year-old girl named Charlie; but instead of foresight or hindsight, Charlie has fire-starting powers…. Dumb, very, and still a far cry from the excitement of The Shining or Salem's Lot—but King keeps the story moving with his lively fire-gimmick and fewer pages of cotton padding than in his recent, sluggish efforts. The built-in readership will not be disappointed.

A review of "Firestarter," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1980 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLVIII. No. 14, July 15, 1980, p. 930.

Paul Stuewe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Firestarter is another] smasheroo from a writer whose books haunt bestseller lists as well as impressionable imaginations. This is your advanced post-Watergate cynical American thriller with some eerie parapsychological twists, and it's been done so distinctively well that we'd better talk about genius rather than genre. Complex characterizations, credible dialogue and a no-nonsense prose style are among the uncommon virtues King brings to popular fiction, and his novels will be read long after this year's Prix Limburger winner has gone the way of all big cheeses for a season. As scary as Carrie.

Paul Stuewe, "American Thrillers: 'Firestarter', 'Brass Diamonds', 'Brain 2000'," in Quill and Quire (reprinted by permission of Quill and Quire), Vol. 46, No. 10, October, 1980, pp. 40-1.∗

Michele Slung

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

H. P. Lovecraft once called Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables "New England's greatest contribution to weird literature." Pace Hawthorne scholars, there's a new contender, out of Maine, for the title. At least booksellers today would be unanimous in citing Stephen King, author of Carrie, The Shining, Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Dead Zone, and now Firestarter, best sellers all, as the northeast's preeminent scribe of the spooky.

King has not been taken very seriously, if at all, by the critical establishment. Unfortunately for him, it's all too easy to take cheap shots at his material by lifting bits of it out of context; what is ghastly when the mood has...

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Tom Easton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I defend [Stephen King as a SF writer] now because I have a good excuse: The Dead Zone. (p. 164)

Technology doesn't enter into this tale. The occult does, however, for Johnny's talent is occult. It is of the light, though, not the dark; and he uses it to fight for the good. And here is the key to King's choice of themes. He writes of good versus evil, putting a usually shaded white up against the blackest black. He uses the occult, I suspect, solely because it lends itself to tales of horror, and perhaps because it makes good and evil seem more akin. Yet he treats it as rationally as he can, given its nature. It is a source of power, but one with limits that restrict his heroes. And, at least in The Dead Zone, it is not quite the sort of occult beloved of the masses. On that silliness [King] heaps scorn. Johnny's mother goes all out for flying saucers, interstellar and subpolar True Christians, and all the other goodies in the cosmic fruitcake. An occult-oriented tabloid seeks Johnny as a "house psychic" and gets the bum's rush. Fans are avoided like the ten plagues of Israel.

Does Steve King write science fiction? It's a fair question, for to most people he is a horror writer, a fantasist. But his premises that the occult (especially ESP) is real and evil can be personified are hardly foreign to our field. And he is as much a rationalist, free-will advocate, and moral reactionary ("absolutist," as opposed to "relativist"; he does not believe that society makes evil, even though he does use background to flesh out his evil characters) as that demigod of SF, Robert A. Heinlein.

King's works have their fantasy components, sometimes more strongly than others, but at least his latest are indeed SF. The Stand and The Dead Zone are both examples. And they are both ripping good stories. For all their length, I enjoyed both tremendously…. (p. 165)

Tom Easton, in his review of "The Dead Zone" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Vol. CI, No. 4, March 30, 1981, pp. 164-65.

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With a master's sure feel for the power of the plausible to terrify as much or more than the uncanny, [in Cujo] King builds a riveting novel out of the lives of some very ordinary and believable people in a small Maine town, and an unfortunate 200 lb. St. Bernard…. [There is] a succession of bloody deaths and, the main event, the nerve-stretching siege of a woman and her four-year-old son, trapped in a small car by the mad dog for two broiling days and endless nights. King's work is so powerful because he troubles to give his characters' lives dimension beyond the minimal needs of the situation. His expert use of colloquial language in both dialogue and narration augments the impact of the extraordinary events he describes. These qualities and his remarkable instinct for pacing have you turning pages effortlessly from the start, and then with increasing urgency as the tension builds. This is a biting novel of gut-twisting terror and suspense. More tightly written and perhaps therefore superior to King's last couple of books, it is likely to equal or surpass their popularity.

A review of "Cujo," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the July 17, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 220, No. 3, July 17, 1981, p. 80.

Michael Bishop

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stephen King has written a dog story?

Well, yes and no. Mostly no, but it takes 30 or 40 pages to find out for certain. (p. 1)

[Cujo's] eponymous canine—a Saint Bernard belonging to the family of an aggressively uncouth auto mechanic by the name of Joe Camber—contracts rabies and turns from a gentle giant into an indefatigable engine of madness and death. Although Camber's garage lies in the boondocks well beyond Castle Rock, Maine, Donna Trenton and her 4-year-old son Tad drive out there to see about her malfunctioning Pinto. Her husband Vic, meanwhile, has flown to Boston with his partner to try to dissuade their tiny ad agency's most lucrative client from...

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Sylvia Pascal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Cujo, victims of the mad dog's] violence are two families—that of his owner, backwoods auto mechanic Joe Camber, and of Vic Trenton, an ad man struggling to keep an important account while "dealing" with his wife's infidelity and his four year old's fears. Counterpoint to the ad campaign's folksy slogan and the writer's lush reveries are nightmarish vigils in stalled Pintos where one awaits deadly assault and relentless visions of heat and horror. Beyond the façades of modern life, the ordinary world of creaky closets and baseball bats, coloring books and toy trucks, Slim Jims and shabby affairs, lies the potential for savagery unwitting and otherwise …, the menace that Aldous Huxley has termed "the...

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Dorothy M. Broderick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While the usual aura of the supernatural, of which King is master, hangs over [Cujo], the real terror is its reality. Given the right circumstances, anyone of us could find ourselves held captive in a small automobile on a blazing hot day by a rabid dog, driven to rage by his pain…. Cujo has already killed [his owner] Camber and his drinking buddy and he will kill again before the book ends.

Younger King fans may not find this quite as appealing as earlier titles since it places great emphasis on the marriage relationship of Vic and Donna Trenton as well as Vic's struggle to save the ad agency in which he is a partner. It also offers considerable insight into how women like Mrs. Camber find...

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Ron Hansen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The movie is Creepshow [directed by George A. Romero] and the script is by Stephen King, whose novels Carrie and The Shining became stunning films by Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick, and whose second novel, Salem's Lot, was a CBS mini series. That's the connection between King and Romero: a studio executive saw Romero's 1977 vampire movie, Martin, at a Utah film festival and asked him to direct Salem's Lot, a project from which Romero eventually removed himself.

Nevertheless, Romero and King remained in contact, for the match of talents was irresistible. "What Stephen King and George Romero have in common is a lack of inhibitions," says Kirby McCauley, an...

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Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It will take all of King's monumental by line-insurance to drum up an audience for [Different Seasons, a] bottom-of-the-trunk collection: four overpadded novellas, in non-horror genres—without the gripping situations needed to transcend King's notoriously clumsy writing. Best of the lot is Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption…. The climax is feeble (especially after such a long build-up), the redemption theme is murky—but the close observation of prison life offers some engaging details…. [Throughout Different Seasons, we find thin] gimmicks, weighed down with King's weak characters and weaker prose (unlike his crisp short stories)—but the fans may come around yet again, despite the...

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Bill Ott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Readers who are drawn to what Stephen King calls the "gooshy parts" of his books—arms mangled by garbage disposals, etc.—may find themselves a little disappointed by these four novellas. The title of the collection [Different Seasons] is meant to suggest a foray into something a bit closer to mainstream fiction, but three of the four stories still rely heavily on elements of the macabre. One of these, "Apt Pupil," is a disjointed tale of a teenager and the parasitic relationship he falls into with an ex-Nazi. The tone of this novella goes somehow wrong, as if King, looking for a way to exploit his characteristic combination of humor and terror, can't find anything to laugh at. The last two stories in the...

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Kenneth Atchity

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the afterword to [Different Seasons], Stephen King calls his "stuff" "fairly plain, not very literary, and sometimes (although it hurts like hell to admit it) downright clumsy." He summarizes a career of horror novels as "plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald's."

To find the secret of his success, you have to compare King to [Mark] Twain, [Edgar Allan] Poe—with a generous dash of Philip Roth and Will Rogers thrown in for added popular measure. King's stories tap the roots of myth buried in all our minds….

King's visionary flights in these four novellas show us the natural shape of the human soul—a shape...

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Alan Cheuse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Over the last decade Mr. King has certainly not wanted for ears; he is one of the most popular writers of our era. But unlike other vulgar—in the root sense of speaking in the voice of and to the average person—best-selling authors, Mr. King seems to have remained unsatisfied by mere popularity….

[The] author of some of the best horror stories since those of Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft may want [understanding as well as acceptance]. And it's precisely this quest for understanding, the drive to make his vision not only well known but deeply felt, that appears to have led him to publish ["Different Seasons," an] uneven, though often surprising, volume.

The first surprise...

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Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Those who have already rushed out to buy Different Seasons … may be a trifle shocked by what they have brought home: a collection of four novellas, only one of which offers the chills that have become King's trademark. The Breathing Method is an eerie account of a terribly unnatural childbirth. But the other three, though sporadically gruesome, come without King's customary trimmings. Gone are varieties of telekinesis (Carrie, Firestarter) and precognition (The Shining, The Dead Zone). There are no vampires (Salem's Lot), apocalyptic plagues (The Stand) or satanically rabid Saint Bernards (Cujo). The only reader likely to find these long tales truly frightening is an...

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David Ansen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Revenge—the more horrible the better—is a favorite adolescent fantasy, and it is the subject of four of the five tales of horror that comprise Creepshow, an unashamedly adolescent spectacle dreamed up by director George Romero and writer Stephen King. A murdered patriarch bursts from his grave to take revenge on his family. A cuckolded husband … buries his wife and her lover up to their necks in the sand and forces them to watch each other drown on closed-circuit TV. The appearance of an ancient, very abominable snowman on a college campus gives a henpecked professor … a novel chance to do away with his shrewish wife…. And in the final story, destined to be the gross-out favorite at grammar schools, a...

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Richard Corliss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the past, Novelist Stephen King … and Director George A. Romero … have shown that they know how to scare people through the poetry of pulp…. In Creepshow they have aimed lower, and hit the mark. The film is an elaborate tribute to Tales from the Crypt and other horror comic books of the early '50s. Five tales play with the theme of moral revenge taken on corrupt humankind by nature, alien forces or the Undead. But the treatment manages to be both perfunctory and languid; the jolts can be predicted by any ten-year-old with a stop watch. Only the story in which [the] Evil Plutocrat … is eaten alive by cockroaches mixes giggles and grue in the right measure.


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Michael Sragow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite King's plodding prose and facile characters, he's managed to concoct plots multilayered enough to sustain the length, and sometimes the scrutiny, a feature film demands. At his best, he puts everyone in touch with the nightmare anxieties of youth….

[Creepshow] is a salute to the cult-beloved EC horror comic books of the early Fifties. As a movie, Creepshow is negligible, but as a cultural indicator, it's terrific—a big clue to what even the most skillful and likable schlock-horror purveyors have been up to in all those years since 1957's I Was a Teenage Werewolf. They want to make an enormous catharsis for hundreds of thousands of slobs and to make slobs out of...

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Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In ["Christine"], King drives back to familiar terror-territory in a haunted car named Christine—and there will no doubt be truckloads of readers thumbing their way through his 500-odd pages. Arnie Cunningham—a teenager who has never fit in—buys a dilapidated 1958 Plymouth Fury from an equally broken-down Army veteran, Roland LeBay. But Christine—and the soon-dead LeBay—have mysterious regenerative powers; Christine's odometer runs backwards and the car repairs itself. Arnie becomes obsessed by the car and possessed by its previous owner…. At times genuinely frightening, but at 500 pages a bit long, "Christine" contains some of the best writing King has ever done; his teenage characters are superbly drawn...

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