I just saw IT. And a few days ago Jack Conner reminded me that it was Stephen King’s birthday. Whereupon I commented that King is the Charles Dickens of our time. Some writers are meant for the age in which they write — King, Austen, Norah Roberts — and they achieve success and adulation while they’re around to appreciate it. (The rest of us ink-stained wretches, alas — well, that’s another post for another time).
Why Dickens? On a superficial level, King is and Dickens was highly prolific with a rabid readership. There were fans of Dickens waiting at the docks for the ships to bring in the next installation of his novels.
Dickens specialized in the horrors of childhood, and so does King. King shines when he writes about kids. Dickens wrote the death of children with particular intensity and vigor. When I read Bleak House I sobbed so hard over the death of Jo the Sweeper Boy that tears splashed on my Kindle.
King remains fundamentally misunderstood about the stories he’s telling, especially by filmmakers. Horror is always about something else. I just watched The Babadook with some friends and it was so specifically a movie about postpartum depression and psychosis that it dredged up all of my emotional anxieties stemming from my own PPD. Likewise, King’s horror is always psychological first and foremost. The blood and violence is for show only. The scariest monsters are always in our heads and in our souls, and that’s why with a few exceptions, movies made from King novels fail. That’s because directors and screenwriters mistake the horror for the point of the movie, and then try to illustrate the horror with special effects. (IT fails in its own special way, which has to do with the movie being made as a cynical mashup of Stranger Things and Stand by Me, and while some of IT was effective and I jumped as much as anyone, the movie as always fell short).
The exceptions are Misery, The Shining, Stand by Me (written as The Body), and The Shawshank Redemption (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption). Only one is horror. King famously did not like Kubrick’s The Shining, and for sure, the move is a Kubrick movie, not a King adaptation.
Misery is a thriller, not horror, and it was effectively filmed as such. Misery is a damn fine book and Misery is a damn fine movie. I can reread the first and rewatch the second and take pleasure in each.
Stand by Me is a coming of age tale. It has all of King’s beats — boys on the verge of adulthood, check; nasty teenagers, check; a writer as the protagonist, check; and a truth that the world is a scary place, and innocence is a burden and a gift.
By any measure The Shawshank Redemption is such a departure for King that it might be the only reason the movie succeeded. How do you make a successful movie from a King short story? Well, make it from the only King short story that acts like it was written by someone else.
Going back to the other three, they comprise a trilogy of what could be termed The Life and Death of the Writer. Stand by Me is about the becoming writer. Misery is about the writer at the top of his game. And The Shining is the writer’s descent into madness.
When King wrote IT, it was supposed to be his farewell from the horror genre. He put everything into the book, and he was going to move on to write — what? Respectable literature? (Some of his best short stories appeared in The New Yorker, which probably pissed off Harold Bloom to no end, especially because they are very fine short stories). Anyway, the pledge didn’t take, and he continues to mine the same territory.
Which is fine by me. I haven’t read everything King has written because there are only so many hours in the day, but I’ve read enough, including some of his lesser known books, and they have given me hours of pleasant discomfort and anxiety and outright fear. People may scoff at The Tommyknockers, but it scared the hell out of me and I still think about it. The Girl Who Loves Tom Gordon is another favorite of mine, although if he had left out the monster, it would have improved the book in my opinion.
In this day and age, we don’t have to wait for the ship to come in to bring us news of the death of Little Nell, as fans of Dickens had to endure. King has tapped into that desire for emotional catharsis, and he understands how to provide readers with what they want and need. At the end of a King novel, after he has taken the reader and the characters on a perilous journey in which they do not escape unscathed, in almost every instance order is restored at the end. The children are saved. The children grow up. They are sadder, wiser, and stronger for having been broken. Over time they forget, grow apart, remember it all as a dream, and evil worms its way back in. And so it begins all over again.
Dickens would have approved.