Friday, August 24, 2012
King Stephen, Part III
When I began reviewing books for the Plain Dealer in 2000, I did not review any King books for quite a while. Not until 2009 when I wrote a very positive review of Under the Dome, his massive new novel that, I later learned, most critics all over the country liked as well as I did. That book marked a sort of return for King, who had been off writing more "serious" (and, to me, boring) stories that had served, I felt, to drive away fans from his base. I have no statistics to support what I just said--just a feeling. A hunch.
Busy, ambitious, overlong but addictively munchable, "Under the Dome" is fundamentally a novel about human cruelty, animated by our desires for power, pleasure and sex. Often we are cruel to one another, King says, simply because we can be. And that seems reason enough.
A year later, I reviewed his latest collection of short fiction--Full Dark, No Stars--a book I didn't like as much. I felt the "horror" in these tales was not up to his usual keep-the-nightlight-on level and wrote in the final sentence: Perhaps King has taken Cujo to the park to play so often that the fierce dog has mellowed -- preferring to lick the reader's proffered hand to ripping it from the wrist for a midday doggy treat.
Despite these reservations, I still have an enduring respect for his talent--and for his productivity. Most of us can't write an interesting email very often; he writes interesting novels--some of them over 1000 pages long--every year, or even more frequently. It's astonishing, really.
But what about his status with today's young readers? As I wrote yesterday, "Stephen King" used to be magic words back in the 1980s and 1990s with my students. Many of them had read some of his books--some had read all (shaming their teacher).
But in 2011 (when I retired from Western Reserve Academy), I asked my students one day how many of them had ever read a Stephen King novel. As I remember, of my forty or so students (high school juniors) only one had read anything by him--I think it was the novel Cell. All the others had, of course, heard of him. But while they had been growing up, other popular writers had seized the youth readership--principally, of course, J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins.
I have no idea if my small sample in a small school in a small Ohio town is indicative of anything beyond the walls of that building. But my guess would be that it is. I don't see people reading King in public nearly so much as I used to. Of course, I don't see people reading in public period very often--and many of those are on Kindles or Nooks, so who knows? Again--just a hunch.
But King continues. I bought his massive new one from last year, an alternative historical novel about the JFK assassination. A few of my FB friends have read it (and loved it, by the way). It's still sitting on one the piles in my bedroom. Waiting. I know I'll get to it one of these days, mainly because, well, I'm still a (mostly) loyal subject of the King.