In recent years, Stephen King’s work has begun to receive a degree of critical attention to rival his massive commercial success. Janet Maslin favored his sequel to The Shining with a thoughtful review in The New York Times. The National Book Awards honored his lifetime contribution to American letters. James Franco agreed to star in the Hulu adaptation of 11.22.63 (though one can never be sure if James Franco’s involvement in a project is a sign of his respect or mockery).
FRANKLY I’M NOT SURE EVEN HE KNOWS ANYMORE.
An avalanche of King stories–some from deep in his sizeable oeuvre–are being made and remade faster than even Marvel can madlib together superhero origin stories. Educated people are dragging their dusty King paperbacks out from their nightstand drawers and onto the proper bookshelves, to stand, free of shame, alongside the high-and-middlebrow literature. It’s 2017 after all, there are no more reliable markers between art and entertainment; there is no such thing as “trash” anymore.
The erasure of the distinction between high and low culture is often cause for celebration, as speculative fiction finally gets its due as a vessel for “serious themes,” and it makes sense that any investigation into our cultural diet would include a long look at the King canon, which has been one of its most enduring and omnipresent fixtures. The critical curiosity about King’s work is not the problem, merely its conclusion: that there is anything nutritious, redemptive, or beautiful in King’s work. See, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and here is what I have decided: the charitable critics are wrong, and the collected works of Stephen King are a landfill, where you are far less likely to unearth a treasure than you are to drown in a pile of Happy Meals, stubbornly refusing to decompose.
I first allowed myself to think “Stephen King is bad” after seeing It, a film whose melancholy piano soundtrack announces that its seriousness ranks just under Schindler’s List and just above Captain America Has Concerns About The Surveillance State. It is a largely enjoyable cinematic experience, owing to its likeable young cast (in which the director showed considerable restraint by only lifting one member from Stranger Things), and its classically Kingsian ability to hint at deep thematic reservoirs hiding just beneath the plot’s surface. (Hold them to the light, though, and you’ll find they can nearly always be summed up as “believe in the power of friendship.”)
But there is something not merely benign, but actively rotten in It’s treatment of its speaking female characters, of which there are five: the shrew librarian, two interchangeable mean girls, an overbearing mother who constantly emasculates her son, and Bev, a tween sex angel. Whereas all the other kids who make up the core group of misfits are permitted to be kids, Bev is less a fully-realized 13 year-old girl, and more a canvas for the sexual desires and hangups of everyone around her. While we condemn Bev’s sexualization when it comes from adults (notably Bev’s abusive father), the film takes no issue with Bev’s “friends” ogling her while she sunbathes and kissing her while she’s unconscious (it’s the only way to save her, but it would never be the only way to save one of the boys). The film cuts the notorious orgy scene from King’s novel in which, to quote Wikipedia, “Beverly has sex with all the boys to bring unity back to the group.” Even without that nauseating inclusion, Bev is not a person, but an archetype. She’s one of Gone Girl’s “cool girls” in training (literally, in a training bra, which we see a lot of): a chain-smoking badass, who is still desperately in need of rescue.
This tendency to substitute female archetypes for actual characters pops up again and again in King’s work, from another sylph on the verge of pubescence in Hearts in Atlantis (adapted from Low Men in Yellow Coats), to James Franco’s aspartame-sweet love interest in 11.22.63.
King’s best female characters, it bears mentioning, are both villains: Carrie (who, like Bev, is surrounded by peers and adults who shame her for having the audacity to experience puberty) and Annie Wilkes (full disclosure: I have not read or seen all of Misery, but it was playing at a bar recently, and it seemed like Kathy Bates had the right idea). By the same token, the best-loved King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption, in which the only female characters are literally one-dimensional: posters covering holes in the walls.
It was published in 1986, and since then, King has bravely and publicly attempted to mature in his treatment of women, queer people, and people of color. I know this because at several points in The Dark Tower series, characters pause to note how strange it is how language has evolved (from “colored” to “black,” for example) from the start of the series. There are two queer women in Revival, to whom King gives a gentle pat on the back before having one murder the other. King’s progressive politics are evidenced in his real-life activism and on his Twitter account. Yet King’s works are highly skeptical of the possibilities of real social change. The Baby Boomers of Hearts in Atlantis are betrayed by their anti-war activism, the moral of 11.22.63 is that things must be as they are, and Randall Flagg, King’s ultimate villain, always carries the pamphlets of various radical groups in his pockets, treating all of them, regardless of message, as tools to wreak chaos and destruction. For King, salvation can only be achieved by a return to Puritanism, sobriety, pragmatism, and the spiritual home of all these qualities: Maine.
No author is perfect, but King lacks the kind of literary gifts that might help one to forget his philosophical shortcomings. HIs prose is nearly always called “workmanlike,” which is what critics call bad prose when they don’t want to seem snobbish. In his career-spanning Dark Tower series, which serves to create a unified universe of his works, King makes the breathtakingly narcissistic decision to write himself, the author Stephen King, into the story, at the literal center of his own universe. That’s a gambit that might pay off for a better writer (think Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation) but which King uses merely to moralize at his old hard-partying ways, and write treacly dialogue extolling his wife’s virtues. His best work, The Stand, does an excellent job of unleashing a plague on the world, but can’t find a moral message of its own to wring from that catastrophe, so wraps things up with the Hand of God (A LITERAL, GIANT, GLOWING HAND) detonating a nuclear warhead. And Pet Sematary, lest we forget, is spelled that way.
Now, obviously I am judging Stephen King’s works without having read or seen all of them, but no one has ever read all Stephen King’s books because he has written too goddamn many of them. However, I have read Carrie, The Shining, The Stand, Revival, all seven books in the Dark Tower series, and I listened to about eight hours (or one-ninetieth of the total) of the It audiobook. I have also seen most of the classic King movies and miniseries, from The Shawshank Redemption, to 11.22.63, to the recent It remake. I am probably about average in my familiarity with his work, which is kind of the point: like Walt Disney or J.K. Rowling or Andy Warhol, we are all at least passingly familiar with Stephen King. His work is simply part of the cultural water we all swim in, and its varying iterations can be discussed somewhat interchangeably because we’re not just talking about King the author, but King the factory.
And it must be said that Stephen King is undoubtedly gifted at plumbing the depths of our fears, from killer clowns, to inescapable plagues, to giant domes. But while locating these fears is an impressive trick, that does not necessarily give it any societal value; it’s like being a dowser for raw sewage. Especially in a time when so many creators are radically exploring the possibilities of horror as a tool to address issues of race (Get Out) and gender (pick an example), King’s works stand out for how little they ask of the reader (or viewer). The best example for this is King’s famous dislike for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, for shifting blame away from the villainous hotel that corrupts a good-hearted man, to Jack Torrance himself, a deluded, self-important author who was already terrorizing his family without the help of a blood-filled elevator. In King’s Shining, the evil is destroyed when the hotel burns down; in Kubrick’s version The Overlook remains, with Jack Nicholson’s face grinning timelessly from a past that can never be vanquished. King’s stories are full of these dissatisfying endings: from the “Mother” monster at the end of Revival, to the endless repetition of The Dark Tower, to It’s epilogue, concluding with another female character being saved from catatonia by a restorative ride on a grown man’s childhood bicycle, in the most maudlin corrective imaginable of Citizen Kane.
This is what Stephen King has to offer: a few thrills, a prepackaged moral message, and, as the woman in It’s epilogue puts it with typical King eloquence, “something about rock and roll.” And honestly, it’s fine, really. There’s a place in our culture for enjoyable and vaguely well-intentioned trash. In fact, that label fits the majority of America’s cultural output. But let’s call it what it is, so we can stop ascribing it artistic merit it does not possess. There’s nothing wrong with junk food, unless you start calling it “salad” and telling everyone it’s good for you, because then people start showing a serious aversion to living off anything else.