Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Question of Voice

In the 90's, if you picked up and read a Stephen King book, you damn well knew it was a Stephen King book. Even if it was a Bachman Book (which is something he addresses in the introduction to my worn, red covered paperback collection of The Bachman Books, of which Roadwork is probably my favorite, though it fights sometimes with The Long Walk). His voice was strong, familiar, recognizable. There were certain bits of diction, and dialogue tags, that would make you smile and nod your head. Yup, Steve is in fine voice today. This one's good for the long haul.

But Bag of Bones is the last Stephen King book I feel that way about. Hardcover in 1998, paperback in 1999, I bought that big thick paperback at the Rite Aid that was adjacent to the Food Town at which I cashiered. I chewed through it the way my Doberman chews through tennis balls. I read Somerset Maugham because of it. I read "Bartleby, the Scrivener" because of it. The movie with Pierce Brosnan is Not Good™, so you're aware. Of Bag of Bones, not "Bartleby".

Dreamcatcher happened next, in 2001. Post car accident, as these is evidently the milestone we must observe. I didn't know it at the time; I just knew that Dreamcatcher wasn't what I wanted. I couldn't articulate what I thought was "wrong" with it, I still can't. It was just off. 

Now, Stephen King's On Writing is and continues to be a "good" work for me. I know (because he says so) that half-ish was written pre accident, the other half after (that, and he talks about the accident and his recovery in the second half. So.) But his voice is there. The conversation continues. It's his fiction, short and long, that no longer rings true.

I still enjoy his old books, I haven't developed a tin ear for King in general (I can't read Anne Rice anymore, for a point of comparison). But his new ones are not the same. I've been thinking about this because I read Doctor Sleep over the weekend, the sequel to The Shining. It was not a bad book. It was not a good book.

I have no problem at all with the continuation of Danny Torrance's story. That was fairly appropriate. I have...little problem with the character of Abra Stone. The True Knot was fucking cool, and deserved a book of its own, where it was the protagonist. I think that's the kernel of the problem I had with Doctor Sleep as a book, Stephen King and his voice notwithstanding: it felt kind of like two books put together, two puzzles whose boxes had been dumped, the pieces intermingled, and hammered together even though they didn't quite fit. I don't know what adversary I would have had Danny and Abra face otherwise, but the True Knot as a culture warranted far more attention than the roving anticlimactic villains they ended up being. Besides the sly War of the Worlds style undermining of their power (I don't want to spoiler any further than I may have already. So.)

I will say, the reference to "Frederica Bimmell", who is in fact a character-as-a-dead-person from Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs threw me a bit. Typically, King is self referencing. Castle Rock is there, yeah, and obviously the Overlook. But there are things, culture references, I only know because of Stephen King and his adult perspective from the 50's through today. I wouldn't otherwise have known what Schlitz was, or Tab, or a churchkey to open your beers, or any number of other things I can't even think of, because they were in the fabric of the stories, not sequins tacked onto the outside. That's what a lot of his present day culture references feel like to me, sequins hastily stitched on. Google and GPS and iPads. Not that I think people of any age shouldn't be familiar with such things, it's our world. But that voice, that voice isn't comfortable and familiar any longer.

Also, I think that Tabitha King, as Stephen King's most loyal and best first reader, should have, I think, noticed that many of his new novels are direct correllaries and/or rehashes of his old ones. Or she did and didn't say anything. Or as a reader and not a writer, it's what I see. Maybe I would be too close to see it in my own work, if I'd been so prolific and lengthy as King.

Cell is like Pet Semetary and The Stand, complete with poor fatherly decision making (Pet Semetary), a plague, and somebody being buried in a tablecloth in their garden (The Stand).

Under the Dome was The Tommyknockers, with perhaps a little bit of Needful Things thrown in. An alien outside entity had an effect on the town and set up boundaries, this time clearly viewed physically, unlike The Tommyknockers, where it was invisible and stretchy like a "nylon stocking". In Under the Dome, people in the small town who have known each other for quite awhile do some hateful things to one another, irrationally, like in Needful Things.

Duma Key felt like Bag of Bones, complete with 11th hour ghosts of loved ones, a trip to the Florida Keys to get away from grief (though in Bag of Bones, Mike Noonan goes back to Maine pretty quickly and finishes out 99% of the novel there). Lisey's Story was a lot like Rose Madder, with the abuse, the world shifting, the manner in which the monsters are handled, the intrepid if unsure female main character. Of his newest novels, I think Lisey's Story is the closest to "right" (which is funny, in a way, because it seems I've read somewhere that Rose Madder is one of the novels Stephen King is the least happy with). Hearts in Atlantis is close as well, or at least not jarring, though I don't know when it was written. The hardcover, according to Amazon, landed in August of 2000.

Black House was a Peter Straub collaboration (sequel to The Talisman) and so I'm not sure it counts. The Talisman was clearly put to the page by Stephen King, and Black House by Peter Straub, so the voice will be different there, there isn't any way for it to have gone otherwise.

I blame the accident, I think, because I don't know what else happened to my friend. I've put out the theory, joking-but-serious, that Stephen King actually died in the car accident (and they have a Robo King for interviews and such), or is at least no longer writing, and that Tabitha is the one putting out his material nowadays. I'd read one of her books, Small World I think it's called, and it didn't compare to his material at the time, not at all. Now, though, I'm not sure sure. I've also read some of Joe Hill's books, you see, and while I wasn't able to make it all the way through NOS4A2 (a fact which in turns disappoints and astounds me), I can see a similarity of voice there, and wonder if it's Joe, not Tabby, who's been doing it. Still a joke, still just a theory, no insult intended to anybody (and I goddamn love Heart-Shaped Box, which is its own unadulterated animal to my ear).

Stephen King fans, old and new, what's your take? Am I nuts? Have you experienced this same cognitive dissonance, where you get super excited for the new Stephen King book, but it isn't the same Steve anymore?


  1. I've settled in and have been reading blog posts this afternoon instead of working (which they pay me to do) And this has been by far and away my favorite post of the day.

    1. Well thanks, I aim to please (and hope a pissed off Stephen King doesn't show up here.....)

      (or that could be interesting?)

      Work is overrated anyway.

  2. I wish I could comment intelligently, but the only Stephen King I've read was the short story collection Night Shift, which I had to read for work. (I was looking for stories for a high school literature anthology.) I'm just not into horror. I can imagine, though, how frustrating it must be to have a beloved writer change.

    1. I've never seen another thing like it happen. Granted, most other writers I've read did not produce so much over such a career arc. Dennis Lehane has maintained his same voice, I'd say. Lionel Shriver has as well.

      Well, if you only had to read one thing, Night Shift is a good collection.

      Two of the stories in there became, or inspired, larger stories ("Jerusalem's Lot" for 'Salem's Lot, and "Night Surf" for The Stand). Children of the Corn became a comically bad movie of the same title, and "Trucks" became Maximum Overdrive.

      "The Last Rung on the Ladder" was one I felt super poignant, less "horror" and more "real", I guess, the kind of thing he would've written all the time were he a "real writer" as opposed to a genre one (per those uncomfortable discussions many of us have, "When are you going to write real things, and stop messing around with ____" [I think he talks about it in one of his introductions?])

    2. Actually, I thought of one. I don't tend to like Chuck Palahniuk anymore.

    3. I adored "Last Rung on the Ladder." So moving. And I thought "The Quitters" was hilarious. I wanted to use "I Am the Doorway" in our lit anthology, but I was overruled by a supervising editor who thought it was "vile." I still think high school kids would have loved it.

    4. I remember loving "I am the Doorway". That person is disappointing, and high school kids would definitely have loved it (trying to remember when I read Night Shift, and I think it was Freshman year of college).

      "The Quitters" was something, wasn't it? ;)

  3. I was in a grocery store in Roanoke, VA not long ago and there was a bin with a whole bunch of really cheap books ranging from $1.99 to $5.99. I picked up a book and couldn't believe Stephen King had one in this bin. I bought it, Full Dark, No Stars. It felt like Stephen King, the old SK. :)

    1. Oh, how funny to find Stephen King in that bin!

      Full Dark, No Stars was pretty close to "old SK", I do agree with that. I wasn't quite so disgruntled when I read that one. I think I've been happier with the shorts than the novels.