One of the great pleasures of being a professor is that occasionally students email me for information. Sometimes they are in college, even once in a while in graduate school, but for me the most gratifying requests come from high-school students, often juniors confronting their first formal research project.
I received one such request the other day, this one from Erin Frey, a student at Ursuline Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio. I enjoyed responding to her questions and, with her permission, am here reprinting the email interview:
Dear Mr. Collings,
Thank you so much for your time!
1. In your opinion do you think Stephen King’s work changed after his accident, and/or just over time?
Of course an accident as severe as King’s would have a massive impact on a writer’s perspective. From a Buick 8 (2003), the various episodes of Kingdom Hospital (2004), and Duma Key (2008), for example, could probably note have been written as they are if he had not suffered a life-altering, near-death experience. The two novels each explore questions of causality—why do bad things happen to good people?—and both end ambiguously. In fact, Buick received a good deal of flak for not explaining what the ‘monster’ was or where it came from, just as the book’s central character gave his friends and co-workers flak for not being able to explain precisely what the car was or, more importantly, why his father had been killed. One point of that novel is simply that not all stories have easy, readily available resolutions…just as life is not always easy to understand.
At the same time, it would be naïve to suggest that everything he has written in the past decade or so is overshadowed by his experience. He has always been willing to explore new directions, and several recent books seem as much logical developments as responses to his injury. 11/22/63 (more about this one later), for example, does not seem anywhere near as dependent upon his recovery as do the other things just mentioned.
2. Many articles say that Stephen King isn’t taken seriously as an author, why is that?
The quick and easy (and therefore suspect) answer is simply that he makes too much money. Anyone whose books sell as many copies as King’s do must be simply pandering to the lowest taste of the common public. Hence, his book can’t be any good and he doesn’t deserve any serious attention.
I think the case is more complicated than that, although his popularity—and the fact that he insists upon writing long, long books—has always worked against him. His choice of genre is problematical: Horror, it is argued, is among the basest of sub-literary forms, depending upon buckets of blood coupled with gruesome beasts and, usually, a fair dose of gratuitous sex. In the hands of many writers, horror can become “sub-literary,” but King is not one of them. His best books acknowledge that evil exists, that good might not always overcome it, that people are flawed—and they are overtly horrific. Ironically, the first book that garnered praise from “establishment” reviewers, Gerald’s Game, in my view turned its back on everything King stood for as a writer and became little more than a propaganda piece for women’s rights, it’s theme being essentially that all men, with no exceptions, are pond-scum.
In addition, he is enormously prolific. Many mainstream critics and writers—those who take it upon themselves to elevate works as “serious literature” or brand them as merely “genre fiction”—prefer their authors safely dead. That way, there will be no new books to upset long thought out literary theories of what the author was really trying to say or, worse, no responses from the writer explaining in no uncertain terms why the critic is wrong. It is much easier to deal with the dead. Academicians can plan their class lectures knowing that they won’t actually have to read new books each year; they can prepare tests that can be administered each term; and everyone is happy. Except the dead author.
Actually, King has moved beyond this point to some degree. Of all explicitly horror writers, he was the first—and perhaps still the only one—to gains a fair degree of critical respect. My bibliography of King’s works, “Horror ’Plum’d,” contains over 3,000 entries, many of them books, articles, and reviews of King’s writing. I will probably never write the second volume, which would have listed secondary materials only, because it would be too long to publish. I have published a dozen books on King, plus scores of articles and reviews, and I am only one of the many academics now interested in him.
So perhaps the best and most honest answer is that many of those articles are out of date or fail to recognize the extent to which King altered the face of late-20th-century publishing. In many ways, he speaks for most of the issues that Americans have contended with over the past four decades, and does so eloquently, passionately, and—most of all—entertainingly. What could be more “serious” than that?
3. What do you think is his best work and why?
You do realize that the question is roughly equivalent to asking a parent, “Which is your favorite child?” So I’m not going to answer it as written. Instead, I’m going to suggest several titles that are for one reason or another exceptional.
The Shining—the most teachable of his novels. He uses it to demonstrate in his own way that horror can be as ‘literary’ as literary fiction, that the techniques of mainstream fiction, including allusion to the great works of literature, can be as much a support in scary stories as they are in New Yorker articles. It is a strong story that stands up well over time; I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, and each time it is as powerful as the last.
The Stand—Here we have two versions of the same story, the original published in 1978, and the “complete and unexpurgated” version published in 1990. He explains that, primarily for financial reasons, his publisher was initially unwilling to release the entire manuscript and that he oversaw the excision of about 400 pages. When the novel was re-released twelve years later (when there was no doubt that it would recoup whatever the publisher charged for it), he restored the excisions and updated the book to the 90s. When we read both closely, I think we get some fascinating insights into his thinking as an author, into his growth and maturity as a writer, and into his awareness of audience. I wrote an essay on the two books, “Considering the Stands,” which I included in Toward Other Worlds: Perspectives on John Milton, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, and Others (2010) that goes into far greater detail on the differences between the two versions than I can do here.
The Talisman—Simply a crackin’ great story. Powerful central character; powerful and memorable villains; powerful settings, whether in this world or in The Territories; masterful use of allusions to Twain, Tolkien, Lewis, and others. All in all a fine novel, certainly in my estimation one of the best collaborations by two major writers. I still enjoy going back to it.
The Dark Tower series—King’s most ambitious work, and perhaps among the most ambitious pieces of storytelling in the language. It is a fantasy/science-fiction/horror/action-adventure/Western/quest/epic piece of mythmaking that ultimately has as its goal nothing less than creating webs of meaning and interlocking storytelling among eight massive novels and perhaps twenty of his other novels. There is, I think, nothing else like it in American literature.
It—One of my favorites because it captures in many ways my childhood in 1957-1958, although happily I did not have to deal with a manic clown. It is long (he sent me the typescript a couple of months before the novel was released, along with a letter in which he noted that he had learned a lesson about writing stories that, when reduced to paper, were bigger than his own head); complex in structure, narrative design, and theme; it reduces much of what he had said about the perils of childhood in previous books to a more understandable form, then juxtaposes that perfectly with parallel passages about the perils of adulthood in the late 1980s. Again, this is one that I read and re-read; my original paperback copy long ago fell apart from sheer wear.
4. Worst work?
For me, as indicated above, it is Gerald’s Game. When I first read it, I was dismayed by the overt thematic manipulations; King had already said many of the same things in earlier novels but had done so without abrogating his primary role as storyteller. That is, he has always spoken about his social, political, and cultural beliefs in his novels through the story; it Gerald’s Game, they essentially supplant the story.
A few years ago, wondering if I had been unduly harsh in that initial assessment, I re-read the book.
I hadn’t been.
5. Why do you think he wrote 11/22/63, since it’s historical fiction and is different from his usual genre?
One of the interesting things about King’s best novels is that they frequently refuse to be slotted into a nice, neat genre classification (something that originated, by the way, with booksellers wanting to figure out where to put books on the shelves). The Stand, for example—is it science fiction, since it deals with the results of technological tinkering with viruses; or is it fantasy, since it incorporates dream-visions and super-normal events; or is it horror, since it certainly revels in blood and gore as it slaughters 99+ percent of the human population? The answer is: yes. It is, at various points, all three.
From this perspective, 11/22/63 isn’t that much of an anomaly. Is it historical fiction: to a degree, yes; but historical fiction with a strong dose of time-travel and alternate-history (science fiction); of horror and death; even touches of whimsy and fantasy. Instead of wondering where it fits generically, it might be easiest to say that it is simply Stephen King reliving one of the seminal events of his life—as it was of mine. Having lived through the assassination of JFK and its aftermath, and having seen the consequences a single death could have for society, I can understand his need to ask “What if?”
6. In most of the works I have read there is a character that relates to King or someone in his life. Why does he do this?
I’m not sure that all authors don’t do this to some extent; after all, we are not only telling stories when we write, we are looking into ourselves for details, memories, events that can be altered, tailored to fit the story and make it stronger. Sometimes King does this more overtly than many authors; sometimes, I think, it sneaks up on him.
I remember watching an interview with King just after Stand By Me was released (I think it was then?) and, in the middle of making a point about the film, he suddenly stopped, looked a bit confused, and then continued to explain that he had just—at that moment, in fact—remembered that as a boy he and a friend had been playing along a train track, and his friend had been killed by a passing train! King looked authentically shocked as he spoke, perhaps because he realized for the first time that “The Body” was about him in more ways than he consciously knew.
I had a similar experience when reading a paper at a Science-Fiction/Fantasy conference. I was talking about Christ-figures in a series of stories, and the author happened to be in the room. I had just met him a few minutes before the session began, although we had been corresponding for several years. So I was understandably concerned when all of a sudden, his head jerked up and he looked at me like I had said something totally unacceptable—or unbelievable—about the stories.
When I spoke with his after the session, he said that he had written those stories perhaps half a decade before and had only just understood, as I was talking about symbolism in them, that every story I had mentioned was actually about his youngest son, who had been born severely disabled and who would never walk or talk.
My friend had written the stories; surely he should have known how much of himself he was putting into them. But he didn’t.
In my own novels, I know when I put myself or my thoughts into a character’s words…sometimes. Yet again, I was listening to one of them, The Slab, on CD just after the audio version was released. I was nodded along, recognizing those bits and pieces as the story unfolded and then—wham!—something I did not even remember putting into the story struck me as true…about me.
So the answer to your question, then, is: he does it because he is a storyteller and a good storyteller does not try to divorce self from tale. Sometimes King is overt; a character named ‘Stephen King’ appears in The Dark Tower series, for example, who looks a lot like the ‘real’ King. But I think it’s important to remember that even when he—or any author—is this overt, the character is still that: A character invented by the author to serve a purpose in a fiction. In this case, the character is an invented version of what King considered himself to be—or at least an approximation of it—when he wrote that story. I don’t think that even he would say that ‘Stephen King’ the character is exactly the same as ‘Stephen King’ the writer…who is not exactly the same as ‘Stephen King’ the father or ‘Stephen King’ the husband.
We all play different roles in our lives. Writers simply have the opportunity to play more of them than many other people.
7. Describe King’s ability to set time and use local color.
Interesting, and difficult to answer. My best response would be to begin with “I think….”
I think King is blessed/cursed with a unique memory that fits perfectly with his unique imagination. In his stories, he can evoke a time and a place with a single word, a single phrase, often using what has been called his “brand-name technique.” He knows precisely what to refer to in order to evoke a warm summer afternoon in a small mid-western town—what brand of car would drive by, what treats neighbor kids might be eating, what movie a typical boy might have seen in the local theater the night before…and I think he can do this because he remembers so well. If his setting is the late-1950 and early 1960s, I think he simply remembers that time, that place (whatever one he is using) so precisely that he recreates it nearly perfectly. Occasionally he makes a mistake, which is one reason I think he relies on memory rather than meticulous research.
I am almost the same age as King, plus or minus a year. I lived in a fairly rural community until the mid-1960s, although not in New England. When he tells me that a place looks this way, or smells that way, or tastes yet another way, I can search my memory (and for me it is a search) and find a parallel moment in my life and say, “Yup, he nailed that!”
With more recent settings and times, he does exactly the same thing. He has the uncanny ability to suggest a taste, a sound, a feel, and suddenly we are there with him.
Or perhaps it is just magic.
8. How did you get involved in Stephen King’s work?
For that, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a student at Pepperdine University. Sometime around 1983, I taught a summer course on “Myth, Fantasy, and Science Fiction” (one of the earliest such courses taught at a major university and the first taught at Pepperdine). After class one day, a student asked me why I hadn’t included Stephen King on the reading list; my answer was simply that I hadn’t read anything by him.
My student suggested The Dead Zone as a starting point. I went home that afternoon, bought a copy, read it, and spent the rest of the summer reading everything I could get hold of by King…and Dean R. Koontz, Robert R. McCammon, Ramsey Campbell, and other horror writers. By the end of the summer, I was a convert. Just about two years later, I published my first King study, Stephen King as Richard Bachman. And just kept reading and writing. SKRB was recently updated to include an essay on The Regulators and is now available as Stephen King is Richard Bachman.
9. I loved “On Writing; A memoir of the Craft.” Have you read that? Do you think he will write any more nonfiction?
King has already written an enormous about of non-fiction, beginning when he was a student at the University of Maine, Orono, when he published a weekly column in the school newspaper; and continuing to now. He wrote a significant study of horror fiction, Danse Macabre (1981) that more or less established the guidelines for the next generation of discourse about horror in writing, in film-making, in comics, and elsewhere. People talking about the genre still use as a starting point his discussion of fear, terror, and horror and how they relate.
He has also published article after article on any number of subjects—baseball, politics, academia (and its treatment of genre fiction), and most recently gun control—and has never been afraid to voice his opinions. On Writing is the latest book, perhaps, but I would not be surprised if he had more to say about the subject.
10. Is there anything else you would like me to include about Stephen King, your work, or anything else?
Just thank you for the chance to wander through thoughts and memories of thirty years of engagement with a wonderful storyteller. Just writing about the novels and stories reminds me how much I enjoyed each when I first encountered it, and how much pleasure that have given me in re-reading over the years. I owe King a debt of gratitude not only for his own stories but for many of my own that wouldn’t have been written without his example: The House Beyond the Hill, The Slab, Static!, Shadow Valley, especially. Thanks for the opportunity to express that gratitude.
Again, I sincerely appreciate your time.