I thought about this topic for awhile. Reason being is that most reviewers that I read, indie book bloggers or from a nationally known magazine or newspaper or bookstore website (and son of a bitch, even Amazon), the reviews for King’s work has seemingly gotten better and better. It’s almost sacrilege to say anything bad about his work these days. So I started to think about this subject for a little bit.
Why? Why are most of the reviews that I read these days cast King in a better light? Is he a better writer at an older age? Has all the haters from the 70’s and 80’s finally quit, yielding to a younger generation that read and liked King’s work? Or is it simply because there’s more fans able to use technology to tell the world about how good his books are? Perhaps it’s all of these possibilities.
It’s true, back in the day when King was turning out books like The Stand, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, etc., reviewers would often times rake him over the coals saying this and that and that King couldn’t write and that horror was just a low-brow form of writing. A lot of older reviewers from back in the day that I read said that King couldn’t write at all and that the people that were reading him were just the dregs of society with minimal education. These were some pretty solid hits on King’s work early on. Of course none of this turned any of King’s fans off. King writes for the fans, not the elitist, stuffy book reviewers that can’t and won’t read anything that wasn’t written 80 years ago or someone from current times that writes like the authors they read when they were growing-up. They are entitled to their opinions, however.
Obviously these old school Hemmingway, Wolfe type fans can’t get into the modern world with King. While these self righteous reviewers were looking for the next Herman Melville, King was hammering out novel after novel like Christine, IT, Pet Sematarymuch to the disdain of these reviewers that were already in their fifties and sixties when King was early in his career. The more that King wrote and published, the more some of the reviewers hated his work. Pretty soon there was a dividing line being drawn in the literary world between those reviewers that hated King and couldn’t/wouldn’t accept him in literature and those that did.
The reviewers that loved King told the world through their nationally read book reviews in newspapers or on TV and in the last two decades the internet. This new school bunch of reviewers were the reviewers that King had hooked way back when Carrie had hit the scene. Some he hooked on The Shining, some on ‘Salem’s Lot and others on The Stand (and as time and books went on, so did his fan base). What I think is great is that some of the reviewers of his work today were the same kids that read King and watched the movies adapted from the pages. You’ll be hard pressed to find a generation X’er that doesn’t like King’s work whether it be all of it or just a portion.
Once King made more fans through his inventive imagination, some of those fans would grow up reading King’s work even today and those same fans took to whatever medium they could get their hands on and review Stephen King’s work, me included. Most reviews of his works are positive today, unlike the stale old book reviewers that expected books to be boring, and about times that no one in the last century could recall. I understand there’s classics out there, I do. I’ve read those same classics that the old school book reviewers can’t let go of. I think the biggest problem that the aging elite book reviewer of King’s work is that they can’t accept that the world has moved on and no longer care for long gone forgotten novels. And I will hazard a guess that as time goes on, most of King’s work will be forgotten save for a few novels and shorts that will probably outlive us all. It happens to all the greats. How many Ray Bradbury novels can you name right now?
Very, very few writers write like writers did 80 years ago. I feel that one of the biggest reasons that older books don’t get looked at much anymore is simply because they just don’t translate well into our vernacular anymore. King still does and has been for decades; for my generation and the one behind me.
I re-read Firestarter not too long ago and that book still translates well into 2017. It helps that I was alive when the book was published and know a lot about the pop culture that King references in the novel. However, in 2020, when a 19 year-old kid picks up Firestarter, are they going to be able to relate to that novel and the pop culture references? No, probably not. Does that mean King then becomes Mark Twain?
The thing that really help boost King was the adaptations of his work to the small and big screens. People that didn’t like to read could watch his work on film and they loved it. Then you had the people who read his books and then watched the films. With this double-pronged attack, it was hard for Stephen King’s name not to be a household one. Even my mother knew who King was even though she never watched a King adaptation or read any of his books but she knew what he was. He’s the blue collar writer that connects with most of the people that buy his books and goes to the theaters to watch the films because at the end of the day, no matter how much the man is worth, he likes to write and tell stories. I have a strong feeling he’d be writing even if he wasn’t doing it for a living. It’s very rare that anyone gets to turn a hobby into a career.
It’s not to say that all book reviewers from back in the day were harsh on King. Not all of them were. Early on King had a slew of supporters helping him along the way. King has always had his share of supporters and detractors from the baby boomer generation. But in my opinion, the detractors are diminishing in numbers. Why? Several things actually have contributed to his more positive reviews.
One. I think many of King’s early antagonists voices have become irrelevant. These golden oldies don’t like change and with the way the internet is the prime source of news nowadays, no one is reading their tired reviews about writers that no one is going to read except the elite much like them. Like it or not, things in this world have become a niche market. Thing is, these King haters held on as long as they could slamming his work every time King put something out (Harold Bloom comes to mind). But time and technology has slowly pushed their audience, voices and reach to the margins. They don’t have the clout they once had say in the 1980’s. Sure, King still has staunch haters out there that simply do not like his work. And that’s okay, because we are all entitled to our opinions. But let’s be honest here; how many of these elite reviewers over the years really read and gave King a chance? I’d say not many.
I have more respect for a reviewer that has actually read the work he is discussing and give it a chance with an open mind. I think King’s rep forced a lot of these old school reviewers from back in the 70’s and 80’s and hell, through the 90’s, to just look at the jacket synopsis and they’d write a review based off that. Not saying that it happened, but I think it did for those that hated his work that much. I can’t see these stuffy old folks sitting down and reading through Desperation.
Two. Another reason Stephen King’s work isn’t getting the negative feedback as it once did is because his writing has gotten a lot sharper and with deeper meaning. I guess this all came with age. I’d say from Carrie to The Dark Half, King was what I would call a gunslinger (yeah, I went there for all the DT fans). He just wrote like he was on fire and gave us some of the most awesome stories, both novels and shorts and novellas the literary world had ever seen. He was becoming what very few writers become: Successfully prolific. From Needful Things through Desperation, King was still giving us some great novels and shorts and novellas, but there was a maturity in his writing. That maturity I saw came in The Green Mile, Bag of Bones and with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. That’s where I saw King beginning to get some age on him and start to get a little more profound with his work. Then his near fatal accident happened. And then came Dreamcatcher, a seemingly return to the gunslinger King. But as he healed both mentally and physically, he wrote meaningful books afterwards like Lisey’s Story, FromA Buick 8, 11/22/63, Duma Key, a return to The Shining with Doctor Sleep just to show us all that he could still bring it, and even Under the Dome with a hardboiled detective novel, his first, Mr. Mercedes. King has shown us all that he can still come up with great stories, unforgettable characters and everyday situations that can turn bad on a dime. To me and I think to most fans and reviewers like myself, King’s best work lies in the last 21 years from The Green Mile to Revival. I love all of King’s work on some level or another, but I think he’s done a terrific job of keeping things fresh and new even though he’s been at this for over 40 years. And if you think it’s easy to keep things fresh after four decades, think again.
Three. I think another reason King’s work is better reviewed nowadays is because more of his fans are out there with technology at their fingertips. Now, thanks to the internet, you don’t have to be a newspaper columnist with your own section in the weekend paper to review things that you like. Now, if you hate or love something you can take it straight to your own blog or social media page and tell the world what you think. Stephen King blogs like mine I think are important because we’re fans first. Why else would you take all this time to write about something if we didn’t like it or that are heart wasn’t into? It’d be silly. Also, I feel that me and all these other Stephen King bloggers are helping to extend King’s past books by reviewing them our way. Let’s be honest here: Will King be popular in 50 years from now? Let’s see, I’ll be 88…ummm. I don’t know. Stephen King himself was asked which of his books he thought would still be popular 50 or 60 years from now. He replied The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining. I think there’s more than that that will be popular. But then again I don’t truly know. I bet people back in Mark Twain’s day thought he’d never be forgotten. But he nearly has if not for some of our public schools that still require his books as required reading. Twain isn’t totally gone out of sight, but he has to a degree because time goes on and people die and things are forgotten. It’s people like me and others that do blogs about King’s work, review the books that entertained us for decades hoping that a younger generation that has never read King stumbles upon our reviews and reads what we, the fans, have to say about this prolific and folksy and award winning author. Maybe we’re able to turn someone onto King’s work later on. Hopefully.
People have their own opinions when it comes to things. Stephen King’s writing over his career is not different. At the end of the day it comes down to preference. I got that. But I can stomach someone that reads King and gives him a bad review as long as they read his work, not what’s inside the flap.
I don’t give every Stephen King novel or short I read a rubber stamped 5/5. I can’t do that; because not all his books and stories are that. He knows that and so do all his fans and reviewers. But to me there is something that works in every King tale; something that makes us keep reading on even though it isn’t our cup of tea at the moment. It comes down to trusting his narrative and his voice. I have since I was 12 way back in 1990.
It’s true, King has written some not so good shorts, novellas and novels. In 40 years he’s bound to write some bad ones. However, with that being said, I’d still rather read his worst story than another writer’s best…it’s Stephen King’s voice that has always kept me coming back. He’s like an old friend I sit with that likes to tell stories. And there’s a comfort in that I think; bad reviews be damned…
Cujo: The Personification of Karma?
There’s times in Stephen King’s work where the book has a message to give. In Needful Things, King showed us how much we as people could sell practically our souls to gain material possessions. In IT, King’s message was that it was okay to be afraid as long as you knew that you had to be brave and face the monsters (psychical or mental) no matter what. In The Stand, the message was loud and clear: we are the creators of our own destruction and demise.
Cujo is another novel from King that has a message: we are the total sum of our decisions. That message is on full display in a novel that King himself admits that he barely remembers writing. But I’ll bet that he was thinking about more than just a dog with rabies. He was thinking about Karma…
On the surface, Cujo is about a St. Bernard that is bitten and transmitted rabies and slowly goes mad as he chews people apart that crosses his path. There’s more to Cujo the novel than just murder and mayhem. What’s in the novel other than the over-sized dog? How about Cujo being a representation of Karma?
Karma is a Sanskrit term that means “action” or “doing”. In the Buddhist tradition, karma refers to action driven by intention which leads to future consequences. That’s what this novel is all about: karma. The actions by Donna Trenton being the cheating married woman that she is and Joe Camber (Cujo’s elder master) being a top rated prick to his wife over the length of their marriage are the actions they both set in play that are driven by intentions. It’s these actions that Donna and Joe set into motion that lit the fuse that started Cujo in motion.
If you believe in the idea that if we do bad things, then bad things come back to us, then this novel really sits well with you. If not, then all it is is a book about a rabid dog on a killing spree; he’s Michael Myers with fur. But if you’re like me, you see what Cujo the dog is: karma. Cujo comes to them to wipe the slate clean; to collect the debt, balance the scales, whatever you want to call it.
With all the bad things that Donna Trenton and Joe Camber did in their lives, it all came to a point at the Camber home. All the decisions, all the actions that they made led them to Cujo. Hell, even the Cambers getting Cujo back when he was a pup was setting the wheels in motion for the future payments he (Joe) and Donna were going to have to settle.
In looking at Joe Camber, he lost his life and unbeknownst to him at the time, his wife because she had finally had enough and went to visit her sister in another town. She was done with Joe. Cujo killed Joe wiping his life debt clean. It only cost him his life for all the wrong he had done over the years.
Donna Trenton suffered not the same fate as Joe, but at the end of the book she wished she had. For all her terrible decisions that put her family in harm’s way, she lost the most valuable thing she had: her son. Although Cujo didn’t directly kill Tad Trenton, he was a decisive factor in him dying by holding the mother and son hostage in a car as the two of them suffered greatly.
Cujo the novel isn’t really about the dog at all. It’s about people; it’s about how we all make decisions in our lives good and bad that have a way of finding their way back to us. Sometimes those bad decisions that we put into motion costs us very little. But most times they cost everything that we’ve got.
Cujo the dog is the storm no one saw coming. He was the serve storm that just popped out of nowhere on a sunny day leaving total destruction in his wake; no warning, no public service advisements, no town horns firing off warning people to take shelter. Cujo was the culmination of everyone’s decisions; a vortex where everyone’s lives intersected at the Camber home.
Remember this: we’ve all got a Cujo coming to us…question is, will you see him before its too late?
Bag of Bones: The Most Important Book in Stephen King’s Library
17 years ago perhaps the most important novel in Stephen King’s library was published. It was not the best novel, certainly not on anyone’s “Best of Stephen King” top 10 lists. What Stephen King and his new novel, Bag of Bones, was able to do was demonstrate a fresher business model for the publishing industry on how to handle power brands like King without the risk of losing money in their investments. Also the novel was the official start of a more mature, self aware writer than we were used to in years past.
For years King has always been regarded as a horror writer. This is a label that he never fought against. In all honesty, King never went out and tried to define what it was that he wrote. He viewed himself as an American author and nothing more than that.
In 1996, King began to write more mature work starting with The Green Mile. In that year, he was approached with the idea of making The Green Mile a serialized book. King was excited and dove deeply into the story. With Desperation already in it’s final revisions, King was able to begin his journey into a more mature writing that would be his standard even today.
After writing The Green Mile, King penned another mature self aware novel called, Bag of Bones. At this point in his career, King was looking to leave his long time publisher, Viking. So why the split and bad feelings after all the success over the years?
It all began over a merger of two publishing houses: Viking and Penguin Putnam Group. And when the two places were fused together by the economics of the times, there were more than just King that were big writers: Tom Clancy and Patrcia Cornwell to name a few were sharing rooms now.
A report from the New York Times told back in the day about the rift between King and Viking that King was nervous about the newly merged publishing houses becoming Tom Clancy’s publishing house since he outsold King. Why did he feel this way? Sources close to the situation at that time cited that King had an incredible competition with Clancy.
Either way, King wanted out and had this new novel that he had written that was by his assessment one of the best. ”My feeling is that it could sell better than anything I’ve done in years,” Bag of Bones was written and now all it needed was a new home after it was apparent that he and Viking were not going to be on the same side.
In an interview later on after King signed on with Scribner, King said about Viking: “The marriage with Viking, I played the woman’s part. I felt like the little housewife who stays home and works all day, while my husband is out taking all the credit and sporting around town in his nice tailored suit. And I felt that I wasn’t being respected and I was being taken for granted.”
When news came down that King and Viking could no further negotiate a deal, the publishing world was a buzz. Most thought that King being a free agent was a joke. It was no joke. King was looking for a new home for a book that was perhaps the best thing he had written in years.
The word around the publishing biz was that King was allegedly shopping Bag of Bones, then a 1,000 page monster of a novel for the price tag of 17 million dollars. This made several of the more prominent publishing houses stay away from King because of the investment and the royalty that King was said to have wanted (reportably 26% of the gross sales).
As the King camp talked and negotiated with other publishing houses in the publishing-sphere, Simon & Schuster jumped into the fray with a division of their own called, Scribner.
Simon & Schuster (Scribner) had a pretty sweet deal that would minimize the loss of money if there was any. The basics of the publishing deal was to give King a 3 book contract (Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis and On Writing) along with 50% of the books sales with a “profit sharing” incentive and a much smaller advance than King was used to getting. Basically Scribner was being careful in investing too much money in a brand name writer in a volatile publishing arena.
King said about his new deal with a new publisher: ”You become a partner in how the book does and you’re not expecting somebody to take the fall if the book does badly. The problem with the big advance today, particularly for a writer who has sold as well as I have in the past, is that it says to the publisher that ‘all I’m doing is taking out flop insurance.’ ”
With the contract in ink and King with a new house, others in the publishing field criticized the way Simon & Schuster (Scribner) conducted the contract. Several critics of the deal went out and said that authors need to get as big of an advance as they could because publishers were highly inefficient. And that “profit sharing” with a writer seemed highly questionable and probably wouldn’t work.
With his new mature book King did something he hadn’t done lately with some of his others. He went out and promoted it. He did late night interviews, book store stops, anything to get the word out about his new book, Bag of Bones. Mostly, King wanted his new effort to be huge because he felt so strongly about it being the best thing he had written in years.
Also, he wanted more women readers: “It was clear,” King says. “that a lot of people who had fallen away were women. A lot of them felt that I was writing strictly horror stories and I knew that wasn’t true. And I’ve always been a little shy about saying, ‘Now, wait a minute, I’m a lot more than just a horror writer’ because it sounds so conceited.”
King, with his new novel and cool new publishing deal, wanted a higher spike in readership because after all, he had a larger stake in the finical part of the book’s success. He wanted to outsell his competition: ”I would like to sell”, King explains. “I wanted to have one more book that was big, that felt like I was running the tables in terms of sales. I wanted to knock Tom Clancy out of the No. 1 spot. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m king of the world, even if it’s only for two weeks, whatever. I wanted those things.”
Bag of Bones ushered in a new era for King as not only did he help shape a newer way for authors and publishers to do business, but his writing was more mature, more poignant more self assured than years past. He had finally hit that creative nirvana.
Sure, King still had his odd tales, his creepy crawlies throughout his work even after ‘Bones, but they were in the details. Had it not been for The Green Mile, we perhaps would have never seen Bag of Bones. Had it not been for Bag of Bones we certainty wouldn’t have such novels as, Lisey’s Story, From A Buick 8, 11/22/63, Hearts in Atlantis, or Mr. Mercedes.
Breaking away from Viking was a good thing for King in the long run. It gave him a chance to kind of reinvent himself. “I give them [Scribner] a lot of credit,” King tells. “To some degree, they rehabilitated my reputation.”
That reputation that King had was transforming and publishers and readers, hardcore fans and casual ones, began to notice. Bag of Bones stands as the most award winning novel in his library to date with 3 highly distinct acknowledgements.
In 1998, Scribner shipped out 1.55 million books of Bag of Bones. That was more than previous years for King.
At the end of the day, Bag of Bones, at least to me, is the turning point in King’s writing career. Sure, he had written some really awesome stories, humanistic ones at that, before in the past. However, ‘Bones was something different altogether. It was the official beginning of what Stephen King is now: the best damn writer in the last hundred years.