...As I continue strolling my way through re-examining my near-complete collection of Stephen King tales, I'm entering the period of King's biggest popular success, I think -- somewhere around the early 1980s, King became that household name, and every book was an "EVENT," which sustained up till around the end of the decade. He's still a huge, bestselling author now, but after 50 or so books, it's hard to make each one seem a major happening. This era, in between the more typical 'monster of the week' books like "Cujo," saw King doing some experimentation, and some of his strongest work – the straightforward horror-free fiction of "The Shawshank Redemption," the stark fantasy-land of "The Dark Tower"– came here.
The Dead Zone: A personal favorite of mine, the tale of poor doomed John Smith and his psychic powers, it's a tight and tense thriller (it avoids the bloat that affects too many of King's books). This one packs a bit more of an emotional punch than some of King's yarns -- I find Smith a compelling hero, who loses a huge chunk of his life and ultimately faces a martyr's fate. The plot may not be the freshest -- how many times can someone head off a nasty alternative future? - but King's voice is strong and assured, and there's moments of real chilling horror. Grade: A
Firestarter: A minor King work, I'd say, but enjoyable in a pulpy way. The tale of fire-starting "mutant" girl Charlie has a straightforward momentum, and a made-for-movie feel (although like 99% of the movies based on King's books, the film is inferior). Yet while it's good fun to read, it never quite leaps from fun to masterful -- the villains are cardboard and the story a bit predictable. Underachieving, frankly. Grade: C
Cujo: Another "minor" King book, but what's remarkable about this one is how incredibly bleak it is -- no happy endings here (foreshadowing the even grimmer "Pet Sematary"). A rabid dog is no global plague or killer clown as far as King's villains go, but "Cujo" does tap into something primal and freaky about the perils that lurk in the natural world all around us. King himself notes in a later book that he was so heavy a drinker at this point that he barely remembers writing "Cujo," which explains why it feels a bit like a short story stretched to the breaking point. Grade: C+
Danse Macabre: Then out of left-field, we've got a nonfiction collection by King, examining the history of horror fiction in print, radio and film. It's a great behind-the-curtain look at King's influences, with a chatty tone that evokes Harlan Ellison's essays, and also a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in horror as a genre. Great pop-culture history and analysis, well worth seeking out. Grade: A
The Dark Tower Book I - The Gunslinger: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." It's a fantastic first sentence, and kicks off what would become a 20-year, thousands of page epic for King -- a dark, thoughtful and lyrical fantasy, set in a mysterious other world where Roland the Gunslinger is on an epic heroic quest to destroy the Dark Tower. Filled with myth and mystery, it's a taut, superb read. Now, the later books in this series get increasingly complex and long, and you can debate whether the series as a whole "works," but as a first tale, this is a remarkable story, in tone and approach unlike anything else King had done up to then, and a sign his interest lay deeper than rabid dogs and zombie cars. (King later revised the book in 2003 to tie in with the later novels more, but I haven't read that version.) Grade: A
Different Seasons: This might just have been the first King book I ever read, and I still think it's one of his best, four novellas, three of which have gone on to be generally fantastic movies (a rarity for King adaptations.) "The Body" became "Stand By Me," the clunkily titled "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" with a shorter title became one of the most popular movies of the 1990s, and "Apt Pupil" is a terrific underrated Bryan Singer film. The stories are all actually even better than the solid movies – in "The Body" King gives a pitch-perfect voice to being a boy growing up, and the twisted Nazi obsessions of "Apt Pupil" result in one of King's freakiest tales. If you ignore the fourth novella in here, the gross "The Breathing Method," you've got one of King's best. Grade: A-
Christine: Another curious kind of minor monster-of-the-week book -- killer possessed cars, anyone? -- that makes up for its pulpy gimmick with a decent portrayal of a loser teenager's revenge against all who've wronged him. But it still feels like King is spinning his wheels, pardon the pun. Grade: B-
Pet Sematary: A great book, and a horrible book all at once as King pushes the reader as far he can in a tale that takes on the borders between life and death. What would happen if you really could bring people back to life? It's a take on the old horror yarn "The Monkey's Paw," with King really digging deep into the rot beneath to find the horror of someone who comes back to life.... different. The ending for this one is one of King's finest and most terrible moments. A confession: I've been meaning to re-read this, but now that I have a kid of my own, I don't quite know if I could take it. Grade: A-
The Bachman Books: An interesting collection of King's pseudonymous, early work (dating 1977 to 1982), it's a mixed bag but includes some of his strongest novellas -- "The Long Walk," in particular, is superb, a chilling piece of nihilistic science fiction, while "The Running Man," (which has next to nothing in common with the cheesy Schwarzenegger movie) imagined reality TV years before the fact. On the other hand, neither "Roadwork" or "Rage" (a clumsy kind of Columbine mass killer story) have the maturity to really come off. Grade: B+
Not reviewed: "Creepshow" graphic novel and "Cycle of the Werewolf," King's two story/art collaborations with artist Bernie Wrightson, because it's been far too long since I've read either of them and "Creepshow" in particular is regrettably hard to find.
Next time: "The Talisman to "The Tommyknockers"