When it comes to horror literature, few names are as iconic as Steven King. Between all of his short stories, ‘The Shining’ and ‘IT’, as well as almost every other horror work of his, no one has the prestige that he does. He is one of the most prolific writers of the century!
Though, to be fair, he did kind of cheat. What with all the drugs and shit.
Today, I’m going to make a bold statement. It is a rather unpopular opinion, but stick with me on this one. I will try to be fair, as per always. So don’t close off the page until I’ve made my case, okay?
I don’t think that Steven King’s works are all that great. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some of them are pretty bad! And no. I’m not going to use the child orgy in the sewer to build my case. I wouldn’t want to make this easy!
First, let’s be positive. This is an honest critique, after all. King has a decent taste for creating likable characters, even if they all write novels or live in Maine (or both). His voice is perfect, as he can craft some truly chilling scenes with his various descriptors. And most importantly: his understanding of horror is mostly phenomenal!
At its core, effective horror is built on one thing: the unknown. Without question, people fear what they don’t know or don’t understand more than anything. Naturally, if you want your horror story to work, you need to make sure that the object that creates fear is something that the characters, and thus the audience, don’t understand.
Pennywise from ‘IT’ is a perfect example of this! His shape-shifting form makes him completely unknowable at all times! He is seemingly omniscient, as he can be wherever or whatever the hell he wants! The clown is a formless monster that knows exactly what you’re afraid of! He is the perfect horror antagonist!
Unfortunately, that leads straight to my first criticism: the reveal.
As soon as you unveil what the monster is, the unknown becomes known. If the characters figure out what the monster is all about, then so does the audience. Thus, horror dies in every way! The only tension left in the story is ‘will the hero be able to beat the monster?’ When that happens, your horror story becomes a typical adventure novel. You betray what you’ve been building for the audience since the beginning.
This is Steven King’s problem! Rather than leaving the antagonistic force off as a mystery, thus solidifying how horrifying they are even to the end, he reveals exactly what the monster is, how it works and how to defeat it! Sometimes the characters discover it, other times they have it explained by a fucking space turtle thing. Either way, it completely sucks away all the horror and leaves the audience with nothing!
Not all of his works do this, of course. ‘The Shining’ is a good exception, as it leaves the audience with far more questions than answers (as good horror should). Sure, he fucked it up with the sequel (never write a horror sequel) but the fact that he didn’t do so in the first book is still worth mentioning!
On the subject of sequels, let’s discuss my next big problem with King’s work: his pacing.
The first half of most Stephen King novels are all phenomenal! The pacing is absolutely perfect, which significantly adds to the horror in spectacular ways! Sure, it crescendos to disappointment in the climax, but the journey there was still spooky!
But then comes the problem: the story doesn’t end there.
Let’s use ‘IT’ as an example again. The first half of the novel is spent with the characters as children as they come together to confront Pennywise. Then, around the halfway mark, they defeat the clown, fuck in the sewers (not using that as an argument point for or against his work, simply pointing it out) and make a vow to come back and defeat the monster should he ever return.
It sounds like a good ending, right? It has a satisfying conclusion while leaving it open-ended and ambiguous, leaving the audience to form their own conclusions. If it had ended there, I’d likely be using a different book as an example. Hell, we might not even be having this discussion!
Problem is: it didn’t end there. There was still another whole half to the book after that! We leap forward a few years to when they’re all adults and we have another battle with the monster to deal with! This time, we get more space turtles, disappointing reveals and anti-climactic, unsatisfying character conclusions!
Wanting to keep your story going isn’t a bad thing! If you’re having that much fun with the world and characters, then great! But one of the most important skills a writer can have is restraint! You need to know where to draw the line! If you cannot ask yourself “Does this fit into the story or am I cramming the jar too full?”, then you have got a big problem!
Take RWBY for example! Monty (Rest in Peace) had dozens of ideas that he really liked. Rather than developing the main cast of characters, he crammed as many of those ideas into the story as possible and gave them the spotlight! As such, all the important parts of the plot (the main heroes and villains) were left to the wayside to rot, and the whole story fell apart!
Restraint is an incredibly important skill to have. Unfortunately, when you’re higher than the fucking moon, it’s hard not to simply gorge yourself as much as possible. Just ask anyone who gets the munchies when they get high!
*Disclaimer: I do not condone the use of illegal substances. Please follow the law and keep yourself healthy. Thank you.*
I don’t think that Stephen King is a bad writer. You don’t get as successful as he does if you do nothing but crank out crap. However, I do think that he isn’t the flawless god of literature that some people give him credit for. He is, as we all are, a flawed man who makes flawed creations.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go barricade my door. I can already hear the angry mob of King fans breaking it down!